Scholarship program helping CNAs get nursing degrees, jobs at Lee Health

Published: April 29, 2022 9:07 AM EDT
Updated: April 29, 2022 10:52 AM EDT

A scholarship program is trying to help certified nursing assistants make ends meet while studying to become registered nurses, hopefully before filling vacant positions at Lee Health.

The Heart of Caring scholarship was started after Mark Ain was cared for by certified nursing assistants at a Lee Health facility. He and his wife were so impacted by their care that he decided to give back and sponsor CNAs who want to become nurses, and now that program is helping to address the critical nursing shortage plaguing our hospitals.

On Friday, four Southwest Florida CNAs will be awarded the Heart of Caring scholarship. Health care studies project that 1.2 million registered nurses will be needed by 2030, and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it is anticipated that 500,000 nurses will leave the workforce in 2022. Local hospitals say they’re already feeling the strain.

“The population of Southwest Florida is steadily growing,” said Jennifer Thayer, manager of workforce planning and development at Lee Health. “We’re not seeing that historic peak and valley that we used to see because there it is more of a sustained growth, and people are staying. And, as far as people coming and staying in Florida, they need health care, so that’s why our numbers continue to grow… this is the highest number of open jobs we have ever had and I feel like I keep saying that same statement.”

The American Hospital Association says a study found that more than 35% of hospitals reported a nursing vacancy rate of greater than 10%. With scholarships like Heart of Caring adding to the pool of nurses, Lee Health leaders say they’re hopeful for the future.

“There’s lots of people who would love to be able to go back to school and have that support, but it’s expensive and it’s difficult,” said Jennifer Higgins, Lee Health’s chief nursing officer. “Getting into a program is hard enough the way it is, but then having that support financially allows them to continue to maybe work part-time, take care of their family at home and really kind of take that stress off. So, that’s really going to help grow our nursing community.”

The CNAs submit an application to be considered for this scholarship after they’ve already been accepted to a nursing school, and they are picked based on their applications.