Spring is the season for awards shows—the Academy awards, the Tonys—every time you turn on the television there seems to be another glamorous star stumbling through his or her lengthy acceptance speech. While actors and musicians entertain us, the real heroes in our society—those truly deserving of recognition—are often overlooked. Nurses, who do everything from performing necessary medical procedures to educating patients about health risks to even saving lives, are the real-life heroes, truly deserving of an awards show all their own.

In a special ceremony each year, the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA) does just that by recognizing one exceptional nurse as Nurse of the Year. The award is given to a NBNA member who has made a significant contribution to the nursing profession by promoting educational opportunities for African Americans, performing community service and promoting health policies. This year, Evelyn C. Gardner, RN, BSN, MSN, ARNP, was recognized for her outstanding achievements as a nurse, an educator, a mentor and a health care advocate.

Wanting to Know it All

Gardner, who is the founder and immediate past president of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Black Nurses Association, has been helping minority nurses in one way or another since the beginning of her career. The importance of encouraging other nurses was a lesson she learned before she even became a nurse; while working at a hospital as a clerical supervisor, Gardner was encouraged by the nurses there to go into nursing. They mentored and supported Gardner because they saw in her the potential to become an outstanding nurse. “Those nurses saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” she remembers.

Gardner started out her nursing career in the ’70s as an LPN. She quickly found herself performing many of the same tasks as the RNs but without receiving the same recognition. But it wasn’t the desire for a more prestigious title that motivated Gardner to continue her education; rather it was her drive to learn everything she could about nursing. Not long after receiving her LPN, Gardner went back to school and received an AS from St. Petersburg Junior College and then her AA. She later transferred to the University of South Florida where she received her bachelor’s degree. But Gardner was not content to remain at that level either. After receiving her bachelors, she went on to receive a master’s degree in nursing and an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner degree in gerontology.

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“When I reached each level, I would stop and think, okay, what’s next? I am an eager learner; I’m self-motivated and I truly love the profession of nursing. I don’t know what it is about nursing—once you get started you just want to know it all!”

Creating a Community Through Education

Not only does Gardner have an insatiable thirst for knowledge, she also has an endless drive to help other minority nurses. Early in her career, Gardner realized that the African-American nurses in her area needed an organization of their own–so she decided to do something about it.

“After I received my masters in nursing, I was working in my community, and I realized how many nurses were in need of professional advice—a lot of them did not know how to access resources. I love to share knowledge, and I wanted to contribute what I had learned in order to benefit my peers,” she explains.

In 1989, Gardner and three of her nursing-friends decided to organize a nursing association—not knowing that they would later connect with the National Black Nurses Association. Gardner was the leader and the motivator of the group. Each time they met, members would bring a friend, and the next time, those friends would bring their friends. Soon they had enough people to organize a charter [to the NBNA??].

“Our association was motivated by the desire to share knowledge and to serve as support for other minority nurses. As a result of being organized, we have accomplished many things.”

Under Gardner’s presidency, an international student exchange program was founded that promotes nursing education to 60 Haitian students, and the St. Petersburg NBNA was awarded the Key to the City for its tutoring and mentoring programs and for the community health fairs it sponsored.

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While Gardner’s efforts to help other nurses may seem exceptional, she explains her motivation very simply. “I am a very busy person, but I like helping and learning. Whenever an opportunity presents itself where I can pass my knowledge on to someone else, I am the first one to get involved,” she says.

On top of her many accomplishments, Gardner has also been instrumental in improving nursing education. As the program director for the Practical Nursing and Patient Care Technician program at Pinellas Technical Education Center, she initiated the Senior Citizens Nursing Assistants Home Health Program—a program that teaches nurses how to care for seniors in nursing homes and private residences. Gardner created this program because she saw a need in the community for increased senior citizen care, and she knew she was in a position to help provide it.

“[When creating the program], I looked for those nurses who could be helpful to the community—those who could provide direct quality health care. The nurses I work with [at Pinellas] are some of the most disciplined nurse assistants that you can find—they have all the work ethic, it’s a beautiful group of people to work with.”

“Tell me, Show me, Let me and Praise Me”

As a nurse involved in education, Gardner is keenly aware of the need to improve recruiting efforts of students into the nursing profession. So, what is the best way to encourage young students to become our future nurse leaders? According to Gardner, we need to start recruiting at the grade school level. She encourages minority nurses to go into their communities and be role models for the children. “Spend time in the classrooms and show the children what nursing entails,” Gardner says. She stresses that we cannot wait until the students are ready to go in to college to begin recruiting efforts.

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“The majority of the baby-boomers who became nurses in the ’70s will be retiring within the next six years, but the need for quality health care will still be here. If we don’t mentor the new and prospective nurses and teach them leadership skills, I am afraid of where things will lead. Sure, technology is advancing but that will not replace the need for people to provide health care.”

Gardner practices what she preaches. She is involved in mentoring programs at Boca Ceiga High School, St. Petersburg Junior College, St. Petersburg Urban League and the University of South Florida.

All minority nurses should make it a priority to mentor younger nurses, according to Gardner—and not just nurses of their own racial or ethnic minority group. “All nurses need to be mentored. It doesn’t have to be African-American nurses mentoring African Americans, we have to help any one in need,” she says.

“Tell me, show me, let me and praise me—those are the needs of young nurses as they are being mentored. They have to be shown how beneficial they can be as health care providers.”

Clearly Gardner is doing her part to help mentor the new generation of minority nurses, but she is simply doing what was done for her, as a young African-American nurse, years ago. “Back in the ’70s, nurses had many mentors. We had people who really cared about us,” she says. “Even though they didn’t have a lot of formal education to provide, the older nurses offered the wisdom they had acquired through working in the field. I learned from them because I was part of their team, and they were willing to share the knowledge that they had gained.”

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Keeping the Ones We’ve Got

While recruiting nurses at an early age is important, according to Gardner, we also need to focus on retaining those nurses once they enter the demanding field of nursing. “Nursing is a tremendously difficult profession. Often the younger nurses don’t realize how grueling it is and how committed one must be in order to be successful as a nurse,” she explains.

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But Gardner believes retention in the nursing field can be improved if older nurses reach back and help younger ones. “We, as nurses, can provide activities that will help them overcome some of the obstacles they encounter at their jobs. We must do anything we can to help them.”

Gardner also believes that nurses at every level need support and encouragement. “I believe whatever level students what to work at is fine. If I have a student who wants to work as a nursing assistant, that’s great; we need people on that level. If I have a student who wants to maintain an LPN license, that’s fine, too, because we need people on that level as well. I let them know how important every stage is—and how important the job of nursing is on any level. However, I do try to motivate students to increase their education if the desire is there.”

What’s Next?

Although Gardner speaks wistfully of her future retirement, when she plans to work as a nursing consultant, she shows no signs of slowing down just yet. In conjunction with the health department, Gardner recently received a grant called “Closing the Gap.” The grant is part of an effort to reduce the health disparities that affect racial and ethnic minorities in Pinellas County. The first effort of the project was to administer pneumonia vaccines to typically underserved populations, which gave her the opportunity to work with people of all different nations.

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“There were Asian, Haitians, Cambodians, Philippines and many more. It’s extremely important for those of us in the health care field to come together and work as a nation to deal with health disparities,” Gardner states. “Understanding other cultures specific risk habits and behavior patterns will help nurses prevent diseases, not just treat them. The health arena will be more productive if we look at these issues early—instead of waiting until people are sick.”

Through Gardner’s example, she compels us to work together, using our unique abilities and resources to improve health care for all. As she explains, “Those of us who are educated in health care must come together with different cultures and races and share our knowledge about health. We need to respect the differences within various cultures and communities; we need to work together for the common goal of accessible, quality health care.”

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