Makita McFarlane of Easton saw her dream of becoming a nurse put on hold when she became pregnant.
Ordered to bed rest, Makita, 22, had to stop taking the prerequisite classes she needed to get into nursing school. Then, when Alexandria was born four weeks early in October, Makita had to quit her job as a reserve nursing home aid because the hours were too irregular to get the tiny infant on a schedule.
Thanks to St. Luke’s University Health Network, the 22-year-old single mother is back on track. She just got hired as a patient care assistant at St. Luke’s-Bethlehem, and with the full-time job comes tuition help to attend the St. Luke’s School of Nursing.
Makita’s new job is all because of an innovative St. Luke’s program called Next Step. Now finishing its fourth session, Next Step targets new mothers and pregnant women ages 17 to 24 who live in Lehigh and Northampton counties, have a high school diploma or GED and are economically disadvantaged.
The goal is to break the cycle of poverty with training for entry-level health care careers that offer a livable income and chance for advancement, according to Victoria Montero, Network manager of St. Luke’s Health Equity Initiatives.
Makita spent the last six months learning to become a patient care assistant, a job that includes bathing patients, monitoring vital signs, drawing blood, checking glucose levels and assisting nurses with patient care. Once she is settled in her job, she plans to go back to school to finish her prerequisite classes and enroll in nursing school.
“When I saw an opportunity for me to get closer to what I want to do as a career, I took it,” Makita said on a recent break at the Medical ICU unit at St. Luke’s-Bethlehem.
St. Luke’s offers two, six-month Next Step sessions a year for a total of up to 20 women. During the sessions, participants use assessment tools to determine their job interests. They then receive 20 hours of work experience a week for jobs that include billing and unit clerks, outpatient registration, patient care assistant, receptionist and medical assistant. They also receive three hours a week of life-skills and professional development in areas that include family planning, leadership and finances.
“Next Step is a just one example of the many programs though which St. Luke’s touches the lives of people throughout the Lehigh Valley,” said Dr. Bonnie S. Coyle, head of Community Health and Preventative Medicine at St. Luke's.
Next Step got its start after St. Luke’s was awarded a grant through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which aims to help individuals with barriers to employment, including younger adults, obtain jobs with livable wages, Montero said.
The Network already had a successful healthy baby program in place for low-income woman where nurses make home visits from early pregnancy through the first two years of a child’s life. Called the Nurse-Family Partnership, it also provided St. Luke’s with a ready pool of mothers eager to give their children a better life, Montero said.
The $154,000 grant covers the cost of the Saturday professional development classes, expenses such as uniforms and the salary participants earn during training, according to Cindy Evans, director of youth initiatives at Workforce Board Lehigh Valley, which administers the grant.
St. Luke’s staff serve as mentors as the students learn their jobs. The Network also picks up administrative expenses.
Of the 30 women who started in the first three sessions, 24 completed it. Fifteen have found jobs at St. Luke’s. Eight are employed in other jobs, according to Casandra Ortiz, an Adolescent Career Mentoring Programs coordinator who oversees Next Step. Evans said St. Luke’s is more than meeting its goals, considering the barriers the young mothers are up against: “They have to figure out how to get to work, what to do with their child. The youth we are targeting are hard to serve individuals. That’s why that’s a great performance outcome."
Deb Schroettner, patient care manager for the oncology unit at St. Luke’s-Bethlehem, is among the mangers who welcomed Next Step students on her unit. She has since hired five.
Schroettner said Next Step students typically haven’t had a lot of life experiences and many never held a job. “They learn accountability, they learn responsibility, they learn how to be part of a team,” she said.
Jaclyn Finelli, coordinator of Adolescent Career Mentoring Initiatives, said Next Step is a game changer for participants once they find jobs. Many are surprised to find they can go off public assistance. “They have a means to support their babies. They have a salary. They have health care. They have vacation time,” she said.
Additionally, Finelli noted, Next Step encourages the young mothers to further their education once they finish the program and find jobs.
That’s what Jurysan Cruz, 23, of Allentown plans to do. Jurysan was working two jobs and taking prerequisite classes to get into nursing school when she got pregnant.
She didn’t have to think twice about enrolling in Next Step. Her sister Jaritza went through the program and now works as a patient access representative in the Emergency Department at St. Luke’s-Allentown.
Jurysan was hired as a part-time patient care assistant in the Medical-Surgical Unit at St. Luke’s- Allentown in May 2018, two weeks before her son Akius was born. Today her nursing school dreams are once again within reach. “It’s a good thing,” she said.
About St. Luke’s
Founded in 1872, St. Luke’s University Health Network (SLUHN) is a fully integrated, regional, non-profit network of more than 15,000 employees providing services at 10 hospitals and 300 outpatient sites. With annual net revenue greater than $2 billion, the Network’s service area includes 10 counties: Lehigh, Northampton, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Montgomery, Monroe and Schuylkill counties in Pennsylvania and Warren and Hunterdon counties in New Jersey. Dedicated to advancing medical education, St. Luke’s is the preeminent teaching hospital in central-eastern Pennsylvania. In partnership with Temple University, St. Luke’s created the Lehigh Valley’s first and only regional medical school campus. It also operates the nation’s longest continuously operating School of Nursing, established in 1884, and 28 fully accredited graduate medical educational programs with 226 residents and fellows. St. Luke’s is the only Lehigh Valley-based health care system with Medicare’s five- and four-star ratings (the highest) for quality, efficiency and patient satisfaction. St. Luke’s is both a Leapfrog Group and Healthgrades Top Hospital and a Newsweek World’s Best Hospital. In 2019, three of IBM Watson Health’s 100 Top Hospitals were St. Luke’s hospitals. St. Luke’s University Hospital has earned the 100 Top Major Teaching Hospital designation from IBM Watson Health seven times total and five years in a row. St. Luke’s has also been cited by IBM Watson Health as a 50 Top Cardiovascular Program. Utilizing the Epic electronic medical record (EMR) system for both inpatient and outpatient services, the Network is a multi-year recipient of the Most Wired award recognizing the breadth of the SLUHN’s information technology applications such as telehealth, online scheduling and online pricing information. St. Luke’s is also recognized as one of the state’s lowest cost providers.