College Graduates First Class Of Cnas

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Gila Community College students Diane Christensen and Donna Henslee just spent three intense weeks together, and, in the process, discovered they have a lot more in common than just their passion for nursing.

Not only are they both 32, but they are both married to "older" men who are self-employed.

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Graduates of Gila Community College's first-ever certified nursing assistant program gather with instructor Lois Hurd in the Payson campus courtyard. From left to right, they are, Linda Wyatt, Kim Miles, Shelly Perrella, Karen Meeske, Jennifer Hambelton, Hurd, Sandy McGee, Emily Martinez, Donna Henslee, Diane Christensen and Alicia Baker.

"My husband is 10 years older than me, and (Donna's) is 13 years older," Christensen said. "We are their retirement plans."

"That's the way it works when you're self-employed," Henslee added.

It wouldn't work without a new certified nursing assistant program offered for the first time by GCC, an eight-hour-a-day, three-and-a-half-week course that Christensen, Henslee and eight other Rim country residents just completed.

Four of the students who took the course, including Christensen and Henslee, plan to use the CNA program as a stepping stone to become registered nurses. The others can go to work in Payson right now.

"We can work in care facilities or home care, one on one, or we can even work in the hospital -- acute care, but you're an assistant so you're not giving shots," Christensen said. "We just did our clinicals at Payson Care and Manzanita, and both places said they would hire us all."

"They wanted all 10 of us because they're really short staffed," Henslee added.

But Christensen and Henslee have their sights set higher. They want to become full-fledged RNs.

"First you get your CNA, then your LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse), and then your RN," Henslee said. "This is the first step."

Both women see nursing as more than a job.

"Nursing just feels good to me," Christensen said. "I love people and I want to make people better."

But there's another reason Christensen and Henslee are pushing hard for GCC to offer a full nursing program. Without it, the women will have to commute to the Valley to go to school.

It was their persistence, and that of their fellow students, that resulted in the CNA program. At a graduation ceremony last Wednesday at the college, Pat Pezzelle, program manager for Pima Community College (which runs the credit program under contract to GCC) explained how it came about.

"Every one of these 10 ladies was in my office starting Sept. 3 saying, ‘I need a CNA program. When are you going to do this?' Then they went to my staff and said, ‘You need to tell Pat we need a CNA program.' Then they went to (GCC President) Dr. (Barbara) Ganz and said, ‘You need to tell Pat and his staff we need a CNA program.'

"We had to coordinate through the Arizona Board of Nursing, and we had to provide them with a lot of information about our campus," Pezzelle said. "We had to go through inspections."

But the hardest part turned out to be finding someone able and willing to teach the course.

"We went through a nightmare of a time trying to find an instructor," Pezzelle said. "We had one hired who quit, then another who quit. But then I was introduced to Lois Hurd. Every once in awhile God sends you a flower from heaven."

Hurd, who only moved to the Rim country from California in November, was a perfect fit.

"She was the most wonderful teacher we could have," Henslee said.

"I was blessed with 10 wonderful students," Hurd said.

"This is exactly the way a community college is supposed to work," Pezzelle said.

All involved hope the CNA program is just the first of many programs designed to provide residents with the training they need to address the area's growing demand for a skilled work force.

"It would be a great asset to the town," Henslee said. "Pat Pezzelle has talked about opening a police academy up here and also a firefighting program."

In the meantime, Christensen, Henslee and their fellow students appreciate the fact that the CNA program is available at GCC.

"This is great, because at least I can go to work if I want," Christensen said. "That's what we need around here. People need to be able to go to work."

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