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LIZ SHANER talks with Oak Crossing patient Marilyn Billings of Park Rapids during an occupational therapy session. Billings had total knee replacement the week before. Shaner started out as a certified nursing assistant, a job she said is a great start to any career in the health field, and now works as an occupational therapist.

Hardest job you'll ever love

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When Steve Puyear became a dislocated worker, he wondered what his next step would be for income.

The 54-year-old former lawn service worker prayed about it and came up with a solution that he describes as "the best job ever."

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Puyear now works as a certified nursing assistant at Essentia Health St. Mary's, a job he started about a year ago and couldn't be happier doing.

"I was really apprehensive. I'm a shy person," he said of starting a new career and working with nursing home residents.

Now he says he's rewarded every day through his patients.

"You get more than you give," he said. "The people are such a blessing."

It's CNAs like Puyear that St. Mary's and Emmanuel Community are looking to train and hire. And by the looks of the help wanted postings, the facilities are looking for quite a few of them.

A day in the life of a CNA

"Nursing is not just nursing," said Cheryl Krause, director of nursing at Emmanuel Community.

"They make the residents' day, every day," added Bobbi Jo Koons, RN and NA/HHA class coordinator/MDS coordinator with Emmanuel Community.

CNAs are the ones taking care of the nursing home patients. They do everything from bathing to dressing, assistance with exercise and eating to helping residents write letters.

Some just sit and chat when needed. They become family -- both for the residents and for the workers.

CNAs sit with residents when they don't have family in town or at all; they sit with dying residents when the family needs a break or doesn't live in the area. They even grieve when a resident dies.

"I always think the nursing assistants add life to years. That is really key," said Laura Seleen, at Essentia Health St. Mary's Oak Crossing.

Koons said it's that interaction and bonds formed with residents that made her former work as a CNA the favorite job she's ever held.

And of course there is the misconception that CNAs are just there to wipe butts.

"But it's not the job," Seleen said.

"It's so much more," Koons finished.

CNA training

With the ever-increasing demand for CNAs, Emmanuel and St. Mary's have taken education and training into their own hands.

For quite a few years, the two entities have been training students, regardless of age, to perform the tasks required of a CNA.

Koons teaches the course at Emmanuel, and Gjerde teaches it at St. Mary's.

"We're just happy to put nursing assistants into the community," Seleen said, regardless of where people take the training and work.

Training consists of 80 hours to be certified for nursing assistant and home health aid, or 75 hours for just nursing assistant.

Then students have to take a skills test and pass with a 75 percent. There are five skills covered in that portion, and then a written test (that can be given orally if needed). Students can take the test three times, and if they continue to fail the test, they have to repeat the class.

After being certified as CNAs, there are continuous education updates as well.

After nuclear power plants, Seleen said health care is the most regulated field.

While the CNA classes have a fee, Emmanuel and St. Mary's offer different payment options, including getting a portion of the cost back after being retained as employees for a period of time. Rural Minnesota CEP can also assist with funding.

When Melissa Crow moved to town three years ago, she said she couldn't afford to attend college, so she chose to become a CNA.

Just a month into work at Essentia Health St. Mary's, she said it's been a good start in the nursing field.

"I was born with caretaking characteristics," she said, making the one-on-one work with her patients enjoyable.

She said she heard someone else say it and she agrees, "When we come to work, it's not tasks to be taken care of, it's people.

"It's not just customers passing by a drive-thru window. This is their home."

School to work

When Sara Thunder was in high school, she didn't like it much, but she was encouraged to continue on and eventually get her CNA certification. That was over 10 years ago.

"I can't imagine doing anything else," she said, now working at Essentia Health St. Mary's as a CNA.

Through the School to Work program, students can take the CNA classes at Emmanuel or St. Mary's and get high school and college credits.

Former School to Work Coordinator John Flatt said in his years at Detroit Lakes School, the CNA program through the School to Work had the "best success (and) best participation" of all the programs offered.

"It's definitely the first step for nursing and should be for anything in the health field," he said. "This class helps them discover the rewards of it."

Thunder found more than just personal satisfaction in her job.

"I think it was God's way of telling me to get going, now," she said. One year later, she had a child.

"It's good money if you have patience," she said. "I'm more of a hands-on (person). I couldn't sit in an office."

CNA or a steppingstone

While in high school, Liz Shaner knew she would go into the healthcare field, so she took classes relating to that field. She even job shadowed a hand therapist and found the track she wanted to continue down.

As a first step, she completed the CNA training and worked as a nursing assistant for a period of time.

"It made it a lot easier having those skills," she said of what she learned as a CNA.

She went on to college and become an occupational therapist, now working at Essentia Health St. Mary's.

Having that foundation, the CNA certification, "you never have a problem finding a job, ever," added Thunder.

"There are always openings for motivated individuals," Krause said.

Thunder said that even if a CNA moves out of town, there isn't a shortage of job opportunities in the health field.

CNA can also be a steppingstone to a licensed practical nurse, a registered nurse or some other healthcare field. And a CNA can work part-time while working on their next step.

"We all need a living, but this pays you back more," Puyear said.

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