By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- Friday was a life-changing day for seven area residents and their families.
The American Red Cross's Top of Virginia chapter held its inaugural graduation for the Nurse Assistant Training Program, which was introduced to the area just one month ago.
The program, which has two other locations in the state and is nationally recognized, prepares students for certification by the Virginia Board of Nursing and incorporates nursing, life and career skills.
The seven women who made up the program's first graduating class had to apply for the program, and spent the last four weeks immersed in classes, studying and even hands-on clinical care at Shenandoah Valley Westminster Canterbury.
Mark Whiting, manager of the program, said that for the past 18 months, 100 percent of students at the Richmond location have passed the Certified Nursing Assistant exam upon course completion.
As he addressed the graduates Friday afternoon, he expressed his confidence in their ability to carry out the Red Cross's mission.
"You are trained, empowered and prepared to help so many people," he said. "And you've done it through the nation's leader in health and safety services. The knowledge, skills and abilities you have will carry on with you forever."
Part of the reason Winchester seemed to be the next logical program location was due to the fact that the number one and three projected growth occupations are home health aide and personal care aides. These predictions are on track with national trends that project a 78 percent employment growth rate in the health care field over the next seven years, according to the Virginia Employment Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
"You are doing work worth doing," Whiting said. "And when you pass the state exam, I know you'll carry the Red Cross title proudly."
The tuition for the program is $1,250, however, six of the seven graduates were recipients of a $1,000 financial aid stipend provided by the Walmart Foundation.
Mark Smith, executive director of medical education and testing, said there were more than 100 students graduating from the program at locations across the country. He decided to attend the one in Winchester.
"This program is special, and this class is special," he said. "Just know that every person who comes in contact with you, every person you help, is going to remember you for the rest of their life."
Whiting said the graduating class was one of firsts. All seven students had perfect attendance -- something he has never seen in the eight years of his involvement with the program in Richmond.
Additionally, the class included a mother and daughter, who both took on the task of "pinning" the other.
"That pin is special," Whiting said. "Anyone who sees it knows that you are connected to the Red Cross, and that's a good connection to have."
Two of the graduates had just finished high school in the spring, but now less than six months later will be able to call themselves a CNA.
Erin St. Amand, 22, of Stephens City, said she had always been interested in becoming a registered nurse. After having her son six months ago, she said she was even more set on working in health care.
"My mother-in-law read about the program and really encouraged me to go after it," she said. "It was tough being away from my baby for the classes, but it was worth it. I did this to better myself and my family."
St. Amand said she will take the official state exam in just a few weeks, but she isn't nervous.
"Oh, I feel completely prepared," she said. "I know it was only a four-week program, but we learned so much and got so much experience actually taking care of people."
Helping others has always been her driving force in entering a health care profession, she added. After taking the exam, St. Amand would like to work for Winchester Medical Center, and eventually add the registered nurse title to her name.
Two more program sessions are scheduled for October and November. To learn more and download the application, go to www.redcross.org/va/winchester/programs-services/nurse-assistant-training.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org