By Mark West
An old worn out note was pinned to the notice board in a retirement home not far from my office in Houston. It simply read “To care for those who once cared for us is one of our highest honors.”
I reflected on this as Roberta Russell took a seat across from me. We had barely exchanged a few words in greeting but I could already feel the warmth of her smile brightening up my day and I found myself immediately at ease in her company.
Roberta recently graduated from the highly successful Health Care Assistant program run by Northwest Community College. I had heard about Roberta from colleagues who often spoke candidly about an aboriginal woman who had shown remarkable courage and determination during her studies. I was keen to find out more and discover what had attracted Roberta to the HCA program and gain an insight into her educational journey.
“I hadn’t really thought about a career in health care until I did an Occupational First Aid level 3 course,” said Roberta. “The instructor pulled me aside and said that I could do better than this and should consider a career in nursing. That was seven years ago. Originally I set my sights on becoming a Licensed Practical Nurse but at the time I was a single mom holding down two jobs and there just wasn’t enough time. Then late last year the Health Care Assistant program was announced and I knew that this was my chance to train for a professional, full-time career.
Roberta enrolled in Career and College Preparation (CCP) at Houston’s NWCC to upgrade before applying to the HCA program.
“I cannot speak highly enough of all the CCP instructors and staff who have been a constant source of support and encouragement,” she said. “Much of the attraction of CCP is its flexible and all inclusive approach to education. Everyone is welcome regardless of their ability. The CCP department is also open on some evenings to enable employed students the opportunity to go to school.”
Roberta singled out Sandi Lavallie in particular for her inspirational guidance, continual reassurance and steadfast belief in all of her students. “I heard via another member of staff that I had been ‘highly recommended’ for the HCA program by Sandi and that she had said “I know Roberta can do this… she just doesn’t know it yet.” I was so flattered and comforted to know I had her support and that someone else believed in me.”
Having gotten the prerequisites, Roberta applied and successfully gained a place in the HCA program in January 2014. However, as Roberta explains, the work had only just begun. “I was terrified at the beginning and intimidated by all the new terminology and the amount of home study. I would go home with tears in my eyes, but my husband would just grab my books and sit me down and say ‘you’ve come this far so there’s no quitting. You get studying and I’ll make you a cup of tea and we’ll take it from there.’ He has been a huge support.
As time went by and I began to settle into my course, I would bring home my grades to show my family. My daughter was so proud of me. “Way to go Mom!” she would say and it felt wonderful to share each success with my family. Without their love and support I never could have completed this course, and to them I am truly grateful.”
When I asked Roberta what she liked most about the course and if she would recommend it to others, she replied without hesitation. “It’s simple: I’ve found something that I am really passionate about. It’s as if all of my clients are guests in my own home and as such must be treated with the love and respect they deserve. It’s what I have been taught, to respect our elders and to look after people the way we would wish our own parents to be looked after.”
“The course has also helped mold me as a person and helped me be a positive role model to my son and daughter. It has changed the way I parent my children and has improved my self-confidence and relationship with my husband. The HCA program has worked for me on so many different levels and if a person were to approach the program with an open mind, I can’t recommend it highly enough.”
Since graduating in July, Roberta has received several job opportunities and is currently working successfully as a certified Health Care Assistant in the Bulkley Valley. Originally from Hazelton, Roberta now lives in Houston with her husband Stephen, 17-year-old daughter Justice and 4-year-son Blaze.