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The turning of the seasons has always given me pause. As summer gave way to  fall, I reflected on the year, my mind drifting back to spring, when it seemed like a switch was thrown and our lives were turned upside down by the global pandemic. And I realized that by year’s end we will have lived nearly all of 2020 relying more heavily than ever on our tirelessly committed healthcare professionals who call Southwest Florida home. 

Emergency medical personnel. Nurses. Physicians. Residential-care and home-care providers. All have heroically answered a call of compassion that was overwhelming at times and remains challenging today. They were our first responders – now, they are our ongoing responders.

To be honest, it’s unsettling when I realize that, as we continue to navigate these trying times, COVID-19’s possible long-term effects are still not fully understood, and that the future will undoubtedly present further challenges for Southwest Florida’s broader healthcare system. Still, I find reassurance knowing that our friends, families, neighbors and colleagues who look after the health of our loved ones will continue to be there for us. 

But, increasingly, they can’t do it alone. Unlike the lightning strike of COVID-19, we’re facing a parallel urgency that was building for quite some time before the outbreak, one to which the pandemic gave increased emphasis: a crucial shortage of nurses. 

According to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (FDEO), Southwest Florida needs nearly140 additional registered nurses to serve the needs of our population. This projection comes at a time when FDEO estimates the need for registered nurses in our region will grow by an additional 20% by 2026, leaving us with a potential gap of nearly 170 over the coming five years.

The recognition of that reality in 2018 fueled the generosity of contributors to the Women’s Legacy Fund at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation to establish a three-year grant program: Career Pipelines for Women in Healthcare. The goal is to bridge the deficit gap in the number of nurses and increase access to healthcare career tracks for women from underserved and underemployed communities. This transformational effort is so key to regional sustainability and a thriving future because we know that education that serves as a doorway to long-term career opportunities elevates not only individual lives, but the prospects of their families and generations to come. 

The program has provided crucial support for women with financial need to enroll in health science education courses at Fort Myers Technical College and Cape Coral Technical College, specifically targeting Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) and Certified Medical Assisting (CMA) schooling. Those two disciplines are vital entry points into the nursing profession and have been identified as critical-need positions by our local healthcare partners, from hospitals to extended care facilities and agencies providing at-home care. 

Having completed its second year of funding, the three-year grant’s essential support doesn’t end with educational costs. Transportation to and from class can often be a challenge, so the program offers assistance on that front as well. And once the students have achieved their certifications, there’s support to help them kickstart their careers with resume writing and interview skills, as well as offering professional attire during their interview process.

Precious Henderson, who earned her CNA at Fort Myers Technical College with support from the program, says, “It’s been an amazing experience. When I heard about the opportunity, I knew it could be big for me. I’m very excited about the future.” Now working at Calusa Harbour and enrolled at FSW working toward her A.A. degree, she knows her CNA certification has opened up the possibility of becoming a registered nurse or a nurse practitioner.

For the past two years, the Foundation has designed field trips that take contributors and supporters out into the community to see training programs and to hear from women such as Ms. Henderson.  This year we’ve reimagined what it looks like to go out into the field and created a virtual field experience: “She is Me.” 

I would like to personally invite you to join us on Oct. 22 from 8:15-9 a.m. as we go behind the scenes to share a day in the lives of the dedicated and inspiring women in healthcare who have been trained in the programs funded by our contributors to the Women’s Legacy Fund. 

Highlighting women in healthcare who are making a difference in the lives of our Southwest Florida community, the event will feature the imagery of visually inspiring storyteller Kinfay Moroti of Hopeful Images. For more information, please visit http://bit.ly/sheismeswfl if you’d like to join us during these virtual days for a morning of real inspiration. 

The Southwest Florida Community Foundation, founded in 1976, cultivates regional change for the common good through collective leadership, social innovation and philanthropy to address the evolving community needs in Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties. The Foundation partners with individuals, families and corporations who have created more than 400 philanthropic funds. Thanks to them, the Foundation invested $7.7 million in grants and programs to the community. With assets of $134.9 million, it has provided $85 million in grants and scholarships to the communities it serves since inception. The Foundation is the backbone organization for the regional FutureMakers Coalition and Lee County’s Sustainability Plan. The Southwest Florida Community Foundation’s regional headquarters are now located in the historic ACL Train Depot at Collaboratory in downtown Fort Myers, with a satellite office located in LaBelle (Hendry County). For more information, call 239-274-5900 or visit www.floridacommunity.com

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