When Kayla was a sophomore at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, her counselor stopped her in the hall. She said to her, “If you’re interested in nursing, you should join GCD.”  

And just like that, Kayla’s future became brighter.

She has wanted to be a nurse for as long as she can remember. Before she began Geriatric Career Development (GCD) at The New Jewish Home, that dream seemed out of reach. Now, thanks to GCD, it’s an attainable goal.

While Kayla was an ambitious student, a bright future was not a given. She has trouble keeping up with her schoolwork and has also been diagnosed with depression and anxiety. She also attended a school with low graduation rates, poor attendance and disciplinary issues.

GCD interns are teenagers from underserved communities and disadvantaged families who are interested in pursuing careers in health care. They spend three high school years visiting The New Jewish Home nursing home four times a week to share their energy and compassion with residents. During this experience, they learn about professional opportunities in medical fields while receiving both academic help and emotional support.

In the positive and supportive GCD environment, Kayla has thrived.  She is sharing that support and positivity with the senior residents at The New Jewish Home as well — participating in a student-led pen pal initiative with students from Choate Rosemary Hall in Connecticut to let residents know they’re not alone during the pandemic.

The pandemic required moving our GCD training program online, and it has also impacted our students’ lives in other ways. Their family members have suffered job losses, had trouble paying bills, and contracted the virus. Many of the students are responsible for helping younger siblings with distance learning while keeping up with their own schoolwork. Nearly 90% are experiencing challenges with their own distance learning, including sharing devices with siblings, inadequate devices, and poor or no internet connection.

The New Jewish Home is helping our GCD interns weather the pandemic by bridging this digital divide that threatens to leave many of them behind. In some cases we’re providing interns with technology they need, and we are also stepping up our holistic support during this difficult time.

During Kayla’s first year in GCD, when in-person programming was still possible, she and her fellow interns learned about health care basics like hand washing and infection control. Over the summer, they participated in professional development, learning how to ace job interviews and create resumes. During their second year, just after they had begun to interact with residents, COVID-19 arrived and the nursing home was closed to nonessential personnel. The interns took online classes in anatomy and physiology, along with a skills class where they learned to bathe residents, take their pulse and communicate effectively..

In their second year, GCD interns earn the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) certification.  This provides them with a qualification they can use to pay college tuition — starting pay for CNAs in NYC is nearly $19 per hour— while helping them find internships and jobs in the field.

To become a CNA, in addition to completing 100 hours of instruction, New York State requires 30 hours of in-person training in a clinical setting. During the pandemic, most facilities are not offering this in-person training. The New Jewish Home found a unique way to provide this vital in-person training at our facility — the organization hired GCD participants. This approach enabled students like Kayla to complete the in-person training requirement and become certified to work as CNAs.

In compliance with all regulatory guidelines — and ensuring the safety of our residents — three one-week clinical rotations were conducted on-site in August. Thirty-eight (38) GCD scholars participated in the rotations (33 current high school students and five 5 GCD alumni), including Kayla.

Kayla said, “I was able to go on the floors and take care of the residents and interact with them. It was really fun. They even know some of the skills themselves, so they helped us out. They really like having someone to talk to.”

GCD provides students like Kayla with more than a set of skills. It’s a supportive family that cares about them. “Everyone is so nice!” she said. “The staff help me with whatever I am going through, even outside of program days. When I was struggling in school and behind, they gave me extra tutoring to make sure I’m where I need to be academically.” That support has continued even though most contact is now virtual.

Now a 17-year-old and a senior, Kayla is beginning her final year of GCD. The program will be remote this year, but it will prepare her for her next step — she plans to attend college to become a registered nurse. “Then after that, I want to become a trauma-certified registered nurse,” she said.

“The training gave me a clear picture of where I wanted to go,” she said. “It also helped me be more friendly and happier. I was always angry or sad, and I often need someone to talk to.” Kayla said that the staff doesn’t wait for her to ask for help — they notice when she needs it. “If I’m too quiet, sitting by myself, they pull me to the side to make sure I’m okay.”

Getting a chance to see how medical professionals respond in a crisis has made Kayla even more committed to pursuing her nursing degree. She said “Seeing how hard the nurses work to help patients and keep them safe, while keeping themselves safe made me want to study harder. It gave me motivation.” For Kayla and her fellow interns, GCD has been a life-changing experience. Despite the constraints that COVID-19 has imposed, she continues to take full advantage of the opportunities GCD offers, including SAT prep and a college essay workshop she participated in over the summer. College, her next step, is now within reach.