The health care crisis resulting from the current nursing shortage continues to worsen across the country. Some experts have estimated that more than 1.7 million new nurses will be needed by the year 2020. In some parts of the country, such as California, hospitals and other health care facilities have been forced to turn patients away because of a lack of trained RN staff. As the U.S. population continues to grow and to age, there are just not enough nurses to meet the increasing demand.

This is especially true in America’s more ethnically diverse communities, where there are many recent immigrants who do not speak English. Because of the burgeoning growth of the nation’s Latino and Hispanic population, demand for Registered Nurses who are fluent in Spanish far exceeds the supply, especially in specialty areas such as critical care, obstetrics and operating rooms. According to the most recent census, Hispanics now account for 13% of the U.S. population, yet only 2% of the current RN population is Hispanic.

In the Los Angeles area, TELACU (The East Los Angeles Community Union), a non-profit community development corporation, is working to change this situation. Through its TELACU Education Foundation, the organization established a Health Careers Program three years ago to help ensure that there are enough bilingual, culturally sensitive nurses and other health care workers to serve the area’s growing Latino communities.

 Jimmy Benavides, co-founder of Future Leaders of America, speaks to Health Careers Program students. Jimmy Benavides, co-founder of Future Leaders of America, speaks to Health Careers Program students.

At a time when many hospitals are importing nurses from other countries to fill their staffing gaps, it’s important to recognize that there are many people from underrepresented populations here in the United States who could become nurses. The TELACU Health Careers Program was created to encourage Latino students to pursue careers in the health professions, and particularly, to meet the growing need for bilingual doctors, nurses, technicians and other medical professionals. The program provides support for these students in a variety of ways, including scholarships, tutoring, counseling and more.

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“We need bilingual/bicultural men and women working in our hospitals to serve our population,” says David C. Lizárraga, TELACU president and CEO. “There are young Latino men and women [in our communities] who have an interest in working as nurses or other health care professionals. Our program provides more than just financial assistance to help them achieve their goal. It benefits not just the students but the entire community.”

Maribel Lara, RN, a nurse at Downey Regional Medical Center (DRMC) in Downey, Calif., is one young woman who has benefited from the TELACU program. She received a scholarship that enabled her to complete her ADN degree from East Los Angeles College in May 2002. “I enjoy being a nurse,” she says. “When I decided to choose a career, I wanted to work in a field where I could help people and touch their lives.” As a nurse who is bilingual, Lara says she is “always being pulled aside to translate for others. With such a large Hispanic population, we need more people who can speak Spanish working in hospitals.”

The TELACU scholarship, she adds, made it easier to achieve her goal. “It let me focus more on school, my grades improved and I was not as stressed. It took the pressure off and really made a difference,” Lara explains. “Now, I urge others to consider nursing as a profession and I tell them about TELACU’s program.”

Karen Ochoa, RN, had considered nursing as a career while growing up in East Los Angeles, but when she became a single mom at age 17, her goal seemed impossible to achieve. She persevered, however, and enrolled in the nursing program at East Los Angeles College, where she heard about the newly established TELACU scholarship. She was one of the very first students to apply for it and one of the first scholarship recipients. “It made going to school much easier,” she recalls. “I was able to buy my supplies, the extra books I needed, gas for my car and other things I needed. It also paid for childcare for my daughter.”

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Ochoa is now a nurse at DRMC, working in critical care. “Even though it’s hard work,” she reports, “I like helping people, talking to the patients, and I try to always keep a positive attitude.”

Financial Support Is Just the Beginning

Initially, the Health Careers Program began with a partnership between TELACU Education Foundation, Downey Regional Medical Center and East Los Angeles College. The plan was for TELACU to provide scholarships and other assistance to academically excellent, financially needy Latino nursing students at the college. When the students completed their education and passed their licensing exams, they would be offered the opportunity to work at DRMC, a 199-bed hospital and medical campus.

Program graduate Joaquin NunezProgram graduate Joaquin Nunez

Since then, the program has expanded to help more students realize their dreams of a nursing career. Today the TELACU Health Careers Program serves students at three area colleges, in partnership with three local hospitals. In addition to the TELACU/DRMC partnership with East Los Angeles College, there is now a TELACU program at White Memorial Medical Center (WMMC) in Los Angeles, in partnership with Rio Hondo College, as well as one at Pasadena City College, working with Tenet Healthcare.

Currently, the Health Careers Program awards approximately 30 scholarships and stipends annually, totaling approximately $300,000, to qualifying second-year nursing students at the participating schools. Individual awards range from $1,500 to $10,000. All of the funding comes from the DRMC Foundation, WMMC Foundation and Tenet Healthcare Foundation, which contribute $100,000 each.

Program graduate Martha MedinaProgram graduate Martha Medina

But financial assistance is only one aspect of this multifaceted program. The scholarships are enhanced by academic and emotional support to ensure that the students succeed. For example, the program has purchased laptops that are available to the students on loan. Health Careers Program coordinators and local health care professionals provide tutoring, workshops and one-on-one counseling. The program also covers the cost of the test prep courses that help the students prepare for the NCLEX-RN exam.

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In the three years since its inception, the TELACU Health Careers Program has already begun to make a difference and has provided the community with approximately 50 new bilingual Latino nurses. Thirty newly graduated nurses from the program are now working at Downey Regional Medical Center. “Our partnership with TELACU has brought us some excellent new nurses,” says Allen R. Korneff, DRMC’s president and CEO. Although the newer programs with Tenet Healthcare and White Memorial Medical Center were just launched in 2003, between them they have already had about 20 students finish the program and begin work at their facilities.

Through these alliances, TELACU’s program is opening doors to new career opportunities for local Latino young people interested in the health care profession, who will in turn improve the community through the delivery of better, more culturally and linguistically competent health care services. While each of the partnerships is unique in some ways, they all share the goal of bringing more bilingual nurses into our hospitals.

Looking to the future, the TELACU Health Careers Program is also working to encourage younger students to consider careers in the health care field. Many of today’s teenagers may not have considered working in health care as an attractive career option and they may be unaware that nursing is a well-paying profession for both women and men.

Each year, the program gives presentations on health careers at local middle and high schools, participates in community career fairs and takes middle and high school boys and girls on hospital tours. These tours enable the students to experience for themselves what working in health care would be like and gives them the opportunity to hear from the hospital CEO as well as some of the nurses and other health care workers. If they are interested, they can begin to plan their future early, learning which classes are most important to take in high school to prepare them for their college coursework.

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To learn more about TELACU Education Foundation’s Health Careers Program, visit the Web site or call (323) 721-1655.

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