Park Rapids, Nevis CNA programs help meet critical nursing shortage

Students from Park Rapids and Nevis high schools had hands-on experience caring for nursing home residents during their recent clinicals at Ecumen-Heritage Living Center in Park Rapids.

Some of the students from PRAHS doing their clinicals at Heritage Living Center were, front from left, Tarynn Arola, Amelia Berg, Mickey Clark, Abby Morris; back row, Kelsey Berghuis, Simone Wolff, Sophie Dewinter, Natalie Harvey and instructor Tia Kocka.
Contributed / Park Rapids Area High School
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Students from Park Rapids and Nevis high schools had hands-on experience caring for nursing home residents during their recent clinicals at Ecumen-Heritage Living Center in Park Rapids.

Heritage Living Center’s executive director Kurt Hansen said he hopes these students will help ease the nursing shortage.

“What school districts like Nevis and Park Rapids are providing these students is a face-to-face look at health care jobs,” he said. “Clinical experience is a critical component to becoming certified as a nursing assistant. Some students may even go on to greater health care opportunities here and elsewhere.”

Tarynn Arola assisted resident Jeannie Walsh during her clinicals at Heritage Living Center. Arola, a senior at PRAHS, is also an employee at Heritage where she works after school. She is also planning to continue working there this summer.
Contributed / Tia Kocka

Desperate for staff

Hansen said both residents and staff were reduced during the beginning of the pandemic.


“People left the healthcare field and many are not coming back,” he said. “We have adequate staff to take care of the people we have, but we can’t take in more because we don’t have the workers. A lot of places are struggling with that. It’s both licensed nurses and certified nursing assistants (CNAs). If we had more positions filled, that would allow us to take in more local residents and meet their short- and long-term care needs. To get to where we want to go in the next step of recovering back (after COVID) between our nursing home and assisted living, we could hire 7.5 full-time equivalent positions.”

Hansen said they pay for training and all associated expenses in addition to providing scholarships and tuition assistance.

“And we have flexible shifts, especially for our high school students, times when extra hands are needed,” he said.

Heritage director of nursing Joan Wilken said, due to the staff shortage, some families have had to move family members to nursing homes in other communities and travel to Bemidji or Fargo to visit them.

“The first floor here currently has 31 residents, but we’re licensed for 64 residents,” she said. “Our whole upstairs is empty. I could fill this building with residents tomorrow. It’s the staff I don’t have.”

On-the-job training

A total of 10 students from Nevis High School and 12 students from Park Rapids Area High School (PRAHS) are enrolled in CNA programs.

Nevis students completed their clinical training earlier this month and Park Rapids students began their clinicals this week.

Wilken set up and supervised the clinicals, which began with a day of orientation followed by two days helping care for residents.


Nevis student Isabelle Wallace practiced running the lift at Heritage while classmates Makenna Frazier and Jasmine Dirks watched.
Contributed / Jenny Rittgers

“They get a facility tour and orientation to our electronic medical records system,” Wilken said. “We selected 10 residents for them to work with ahead of time.”

For their clinicals, students do many things they would do as a CNA, with assistance from regular staff.

Wilken said the most important quality in a CNA is caring about taking care of other people. “It starts by the desire to help someone,” she said. “Students help residents with bathing, dressing and toileting, escort them to meals and therapy and help with activities. Some students do more watching the first day, but by the second day they are responsible to help care for the resident with our staff’s supervision.”

Wilken said staff feedback following student clinicals was positive. “It gives the residents extra attention,” she said. “We need young people in this industry in order to care for the Baby Boomer population.”

Following their clinicals, students are required to pass a written exam and hands-on skill training test before becoming qualified as a CNA.

A possible career path

Tarynn Arola is a senior at PRAHS who is employed at Heritage while completing her CNA.

“I work as much as I can,” she said. “They’re so short of staff, so I get called in pretty often and average about 10 hours a week. I also work at Knute Nelson.”

She will take her CNA test on May 5.


Students in the PRAHS CNA program are (front from left) Sophie Dewinter, Simone Wolff, Mickey Clark, Allison Offerdahl, Amelia Berg and (back) Peyten Sherk, Kelsey Berghuis, Ally Holmer, Tarynn Arola, Natalie Harvey, Abby Morris. Arlene Plaza Calderon is not pictured.
Contributed / Tia Kocka

Arola said she signed up for CNA just to see what it was like. “It sparked an interest in me,” she said. “For college, I’m looking at going to the University of Minnesota and majoring in psychology, but my second option is something to do with nursing. They have Ecumen programs in Minneapolis, too, so I’m hoping to transfer there and work part-time while going to school.”

Arola said helping people with what they are not capable of doing any more is what she likes best about working with the older population.

She also enjoys interacting with them at activities like bingo and getting to know them. “When you spend so much time helping them, you spark up a conversation and get to know them really well,” she said.

She said she has also learned to deal with behaviors the residents sometimes have that stem from anger or sadness. “You put yourself in their shoes,” she said.

Emily Funk is a junior at Nevis School who is looking into a career as a registered nurse.

“The kind of a caregiver I aspire to be is one who not only cares for the patients, but also cares about them," she said. “The most rewarding part of working with the elderly is seeing the impact I can make on their lives to bring them a better quality of life. My favorite part of the clinical experience was getting to know the residents."

Looking to the future

Tia Kocka coordinates the CNA program for PRAHS. She said next year they are hoping to have 20 students in the CNA class.

"I am thankful for the partnership our school has with Heritage Living Center,” she said. “It is an incredible gift for the students to be able to attend clinicals and learn so close to home. The staff and residents were very welcoming during our clinical rotations and eager to help our students learn. I am hopeful that after clinicals and taking their state exam, some students will pursue employment at our area healthcare facilities."

Jenny Rittgers, who started and coordinated the CNA program for Nevis School, also wants to expand their program.

Nevis CNA students who participated in clinicals at Heritage Living Center earlier this month included, from left, Emily Funk, Mackenzie Mitchell, Allee Forbes, Makenna Fraizer, Maggie Carrier, Izzy Wallace and Jasmine Dirks.
Contributed / Jenny Rittgers

“As a first year program for Nevis School, this group has been excellent to work with,” she said. “Being able to be a part of helping develop caregivers is an honor. We will continue to grow our program with some grant dollars we received. I am hopeful that Nevis School will be building future health care workers for years to come.”

Kisses in the high school cafeteria came from a trio of friendly dogs on Nov. 21.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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