Two months ago, Manchester resident Brigette Carter was looking for a nursing assistant training program after being laid off from the nursing home where she’d been working as an aid when she ran into an old schoolmate, April Vaughn.

“April told me about this Certified Nursing Assistant program at West Penn Allegheny School of Nursing that she was going to. I was under 21 and unemployed,” she said. “Now I have my certificate.”

FIRST CLASS—Surrounding their instructor Edith Ridley-Smith, the first graduates of the WPAHS School of Nursing’s Certified Nursing Assistant program display their certificates. From left: Nashay Matthews, April Vaughn, Clarice Burse and Brigette Carter. (Photo by Rossano P. Stewart)

She also has a second interview scheduled this week at Allegheny General Hospital, and another interview scheduled the same day with Heartland Health Services in Oakland.

“It is a really fantastic program, and I’m so glad I qualified,” said Carter. “I have a big heart for helping people.”

Carter and Vaughn are two of the first four graduates of the West Penn Allegheny Health System’s CNA program designed specifically to help disadvantaged high school graduates.

The program, funded through a $30,000 grant from the Laurel Foundation, provides hands-on training in a virtual hospital—called the Simulated, Training and Academic Research center—with virtual, animatronic patients that can simulate any medical condition a front-line nursing assistant might encounter.

Vaughn, who had gone through the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ three-year Allied Public Health Career Pathway program before graduating from Peabody, said she was amazed by the “patients.”

“They are just like real people,” she said. “They can talk, tell you where it hurts, bleed. They can even thrash around and curse at you—and they did.”

Vaughn, who had been taking prerequisite courses for nursing school prior to joining the program, said it is a blessing. She will be working at Allegheny General Hospital during the week and on weekends at Heartland Health Services.

“The grant paid for our training, gloves, scrums—even breakfast and lunch,” she said. “WPAHS has been very good to us. We still have to take the state test, but we can work now, and we can work anywhere—doctors’ offices, hospitals, nursing homes. And it gives me a real step up toward nursing school.”

Edith Ridley-Smith, a retired registered nurse and the program’s primary instructor, said one reason only four of the original 10 students accepted has completed the program was the training is tough.

“I was in the military for 23 years and this was hard,” she said. “I’m excited that we pulled it off and I’m very proud of these students. I think they will make wonderful RNs when they move on.”

Ridley-Smith said she is coming back to teach the next class that begins in February. Donna Wilfong, the clinical director for the STAR center, said the West Penn nursing school had been working to get this program off the ground for three years before the Laurel Foundation stepped in.

“We knew these students from the Pittsburgh Schools program could get jobs right out of high school with just a bit more training. And these students warmed my heart. They are four strong students with a great desire,” said Wilfong. “And they will go back to their schools to promote this program and other health employment options.”

Right now, Wilfong said, because state regulations limit 10 students to a single instructor, that will remain the maximum. Carter, Vaughn, and their fellow graduates Clarice Burse and Nashay Matthews are scheduled to take their state test in three weeks.

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