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St. Luke’s training program aims to break cycle of poverty


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, McFarlane 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.

McFarlane’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.

McFarlane 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,” McFarlane 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 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.

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