RappU grads share lessons learned and what’s in store for the future
By Sara Schonhardt
Ashlyn Connelly knew from a young age that she wanted to work in health care. Her mother is a nurse and she still remembers the look on her face when she came home after a hard day on the job. Rather than be dissuaded, Connelly learned from that experience the importance of connecting with people — and she hasn’t forgotten it.
Connelly recently completed her nurse aide training through RappU, a non-profit that offers lifelong learning courses and training programs for a range of health care professions, including nurse and home health aides and emergency medical technicians.
She was part of the first batch of six high school students to complete the specialized training and recently passed the test required to receive certification.
Torn between the behind-the-scenes work of a lab technician or the more hands-on duties of a doctor or nurse, Connelly says the program gave her the opportunity to determine what path she wanted to take.
“It was great that we had something that was local and available for us through the high school that we could count as a college class too,” she said.
Those who take the certification test and pass are eligible to start work immediately, opening opportunities for people who may not have the money or desire to go to college.
Another benefit, said Brittany Woolman, the high school nurse and nurse aide instructor, is the opportunity for students to give the health care profession a test run.
“A lot of times people get into nursing programs and they’ll spend all this money for a year or two of school and say, ‘I can’t do this or I don’t like this,’ and they just wasted thousands of dollars,” she said. “This is a good just get-your-feet-wet type of thing.”
Students are required to complete 80 hours of in-class training, which is split between the high school and the clinical lab at the RappU facility off U.S. 211 outside Sperryville. They’re also required to complete 40 hours of hands-on clinical training in a long-term care facility.
Connelly says the experience taught her patience and the importance of teamwork. And she’s still convinced that she wants to go into health care. But hands-on care taking wasn’t the right fit — at least not yet.
“I want to be able to be there for people who are struggling, even if it’s just helping them figure out their blood count,” she says.
Classroom to a salary
Like the other girls in her class, Connelly’s planning to pursue further studies and leave her options open.
Some of the graduates from the nurse aide program that is offered beyond the high-school level, however, are going straight to work.
“There’s a lot of companies that are willing to hire people asap,” said 29-year-old Tiffany Taylor of Culpeper. She received an influx of calls within just a few days of adding the training to her resume, she said, and has just taken a job at a nursing facility in Madison.
Malinda Fletcher, 45, was taking courses to go through the registered nursing program at a nearby community college when she found out about the RappU training. She suspended her classes, enrolled at RappU and is currently taking a class in phlebotomy, the practice of drawing blood.
“I wanted to go into nursing when I was younger, but I hate needles,” she said, hoping the phlebotomy class can help with that.
For Fletcher, who has four children and has been caring for her husband as he battled prostate cancer and then recovered from two heart attacks, the opportunity to study close to home and at a fraction of the cost of community college was “a no brainer,” she says.
RappU has received grants from organizations including Culpepper Wellness and Fitness to cover low-income participants. The program through the high school was free to students and both Fletcher and Taylor had their tuition paid for.
Even though she doesn’t plan to become a certified nurse aide, Connelly says she appreciates that the certificate program has made getting into health care “more of an equal opportunity for people.”
If Connelly were to become a lab technician, she’d have to leave the county to find employment. Jobs in home health care, however, would be easy to do from inside Rappahannock, says Woolman.
The demand for those services is great in a county where nearly half the population is over 45 and in many cases the burden of caring for an aging relative falls on a family member.
“There’s a lot of people that are looking for in-home health care, and I think if you look for it and you talk to people, a lot of families are caring for their parents or grandparents at home and they just don’t know the help is available,” said Fletcher, who plans to look for work in the county in home health or hospice care.
The downside, Fletcher noted, is the pay, which may be greater in other counties. Starting salaries for nurse aides are around $20,000, said Woolman. Taking specialized courses like phlebotomy can help and not having to commute — which eats into earnings — is a benefit.
Filling a need
Since the workforce training program at RappU started more than a year ago, it has expanded exponentially. They recently started running ads on Google and email inquiries have been pouring in, said Robyn Murray, who directs the healthcare program.
Word has spread to potential employers, too. Nursing homes in search of certified staff are reaching out and Murray said she’s had four families contact her in the past week in need of a home health aide.
At the high-school level, Connelly says a lot of underclassmen expressed interest in the program after seeing the trainees show up to school in their scrubs. Bringing in Patch Adams, the doctor, clown and social activist, was an added boost.
Still, she worries about the aging population and who will care for them, particularly in a place like Rappahannock where many youth leave after high school. She’s staying in the county while she studies to become a medical lab technician but hopes to branch out after she graduates. Until then, she’ll be working two jobs and has considered a third, possibly using her nurse aide certification to pick up shifts at a long-term care facility.
She knows the work can be stressful, and few may end up being cut out for it. Of the 12 high school students who enrolled in the nurse aide program only six stayed for its duration. But for Connelly, at least, supporting such training goes beyond the benefits it brings to individual graduates.
“We have to help put an interest back into health care … by doing this,” she says.