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His Encore Career: Getting High School Kids Into Health Careers

Dr. William Leahy sees a whole host of beneficiaries from the program

Lately, as Next Avenue has written, leaders of the encore career and purposeful aging movements have been urging people 50+ to spend some of the next chapter of their lives assisting America’s youth. Dr. William Leahy, a humble semi-retired neurologist in Greenbelt, Md., is doing exactly that, through the inventive High School Health Education Foundation he created.

The program offers high school seniors who won’t attend college a pathway into a health career — specifically, serving elderly Americans as home health aides, geriatric nurses and Certified Nursing Assistants. It’s great for the kids and great for local older people needing assistance at home or in a retirement community, nursing home or assisted living facility.

“The idea came about 15 years ago when I was involved in a clinical trial for a dementia medication,” Leahy told me. “I wondered what would happen to those patients when they left my office. Who would care for them at home? I realized that down the road there would be a need for a whole army of caregivers.”

How could he pair the need for caregivers with the employment needs of teens who wouldn’t be heading to college?

Pairing Two Critical Needs

At the same time, Leahy, said, he was seeing many high school students “with limited future potential for marketable opportunities.” So he wondered: How could he pair the need for caregivers with the employment needs of teens who wouldn’t be heading to college?

And so, without any funding but with support from a couple of nurses and friends, the High School Home Education Foundation eventually was born.

It’s a free, one-semester, after-school and weekends program of classroom instruction for seniors at Gaithersburg High School in Maryland, combined with on-the-job training at the Ingleside at King Farm continuing care retirement community in Rockville, Md. The foundation picks up all the kids’ expenses: textbooks, scrubs and equipment.

“It makes the kids career-ready and that’s what the nation is talking about now,” said Kim Curtis, Signature Academy coordinator of career preparation programs at Gaithersburg High.

And it’s what the nation could use. As Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston recently wrote in their New York Times article, Straight From High School to a Career, “American high schools once offered top-notch vocational and apprentice training” but over the past 70 years, “our commitment to such education has waxed and waned.”

Leahy launched his program at a high school in Prince George’s County, Md., and he’s planning to bring one to Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington, D.C. To date, 60 kids have graduated.

The program’s rewards are numerous and multifaceted. For starters, Leahy said, it gives students the “opportunity for employment before they graduate and some mentoring.”

An Opportunity Not to Be Missed

Victor Ramos, a senior at Gaithersburg High School who just completed the program, told me: “I’ve always been interested in the human body and how complex it was. When I saw this opportunity to start my way into health care at my school, I didn’t want to let it get away from me.” Ramos was able to shadow geriatric nurses at Ingleside and “learn how to interact with residents.”

Leahy told me that “one of the interesting by-products has been that the older generation loves working with this younger generation. They exchange ideas and learn from each other.” Curtis said the Ingleside residents “feel happy there’s someone who really cares about them.”

What Leahy Gets Out of It

The High School Home Health Education Foundation has been extremely fulfilling for the neurologist, too. “It’s better than my day job,” he noted. “It’s as personally rewarding as it is to the students.”

To find the students, Leahy asks vocational counselors at the high school to identify ones who might be interested in working in health care. Then he and his team meet with the students and their parents or guardians and the applicants submit essays on why they want to participate.

Last year, Gaithersburg had 100 applicants for 15 spots. “We would have gotten more applicants, but it was a tight timeline,” said Curtis.

“Parents are very excited that their son or daughter could get the education they need to be in the health care industry without any cost,” said Leahy. Curtis said the students greatly appreciate the opportunities, too. “One student worked at an urgent care center and he may want to go into radiology based on that experience,” she said. “You don’t know what to dream if you’ve never been exposed to something.”

A bonus: at the end of the program “the students are the first to be recruited for jobs at nursing homes or assisted living facilities,” said Leahy.

His Biggest Challenge

The biggest challenge he has faced starting and growing the program, Leahy said, has been “working with the educational system,” which has “had an inherent sense that we were intruding.”

The novel program is, after all, a little out-of-the-box.

“Most boards of education have a thousand things on their plate and they don’t want to hear from someone on the outside coming to them with a new idea,” Leahy said. “That’s why we’ve kept it as an after-school program. All we require from the educators is the ability to recruit within the school.”

Talking with Leahy reminded me of something I heard at the Milken Center for Aging Purposeful Aging Summit I just attended. While speaking about noteworthy encore-career programs like AARP’s Experience Corps, where people 50+ tutor inner-city kids, summit participant John Gomperts (president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance) asked: “If we have such powerful evidence of the benefit of successful programs, why has this not taken off in the way one would expect?”

Similarly, I wondered, why hasn’t Leahy’s program been replicated around the country so students across America can have the same opportunity to assist older people who need caregivers?

Leahy’s answer: “One of the big concerns about scaling this is quality control. So we’re doing this very incrementally and very regionally.”

If you’re curious about trying to start a similar program in your area for your encore career, Leahy invites you to contact him.

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