In the first months of 2015, Erie, Pa., experienced an uptick in violence, drug-related crimes and murders.

One particular homicide of a promising young student hit the local hospital staff and the rest of the Erie community hard, says James Donnelly, R.N., chief nursing and quality officer at UPMC Hamot.

Equally troubled by such violence, Bishop Dwane Brock, head of Victory Christian Center of Erie, approached Donnelly after a board meeting in spring 2015, and they started brainstorming. They knew that young adults in inner-city Erie were struggling with the effects of generational poverty, including the inability to land and hold full-time jobs.

So Brock and Donnelly partnered. In September 2015, Brock created the first part of Eagle’s Nest, a four-week employability program, in which he teaches the basics: how to interview for a job, how to dress appropriately for an interview and how to behave in the workplace.

Quayshawna Pennamon, 26, of Erie, had just become unemployed when she learned about the Eagle’s Nest Employability Initiative at UPMC Hamot through her church.

Before losing her job, Pennamon had worked as a caregiver for a terminally ill individual, but she’d never worked in a hospital setting. Pennamon graduated from the program in April 2016 and entered work full time at UPMC Hamot as a patient care technician. 

“I learned, ‘attitude determines your altitude,’” says Pennamon. The second half of the program places students in a four-week internship at UPMC Hamot where they learn an entry-level job skill, such as nurse aide, transporter, dietary worker or housekeeper.

The situation in Erie motivated everyone and helped Donnelly make the program a strategic priority. “We had incredible buy-in,” he says. “Staff at the hospital were just lining up to be mentors.”

When they complete the program, students apply for existing vacancies at UPMC Hamot. If hired, they are given employment with a full benefits package, including $5,000 per year in tuition reimbursement. Donnelly hopes to find funding to provide additional education for graduates who are interested in becoming registered nurses.

Since beginning the program, Eagle’s Nest has graduated seven cohorts of about 15 students each.

Donnelly says the program has been successful, and staff have been looking at ways to expand it, including finding additional places for graduates to apply. For example, some have found employment at a day care and at a home for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. — Lauren Arcuri