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Health Occ Article 1/27/2022

Interested in a career in healthcare? Health Occs class has helped students make that decision for 30 years!

By Steve Raymond * Effingham Teutopolis News Report Staff (1/27/2022)

What do you want to be? An engineer? An accountant? A teacher? A doctor or nurse?

When it comes to the future, that’s one of the main questions facing our young people today.

And it can be down-right difficult to know what future to pursue.

Thankfully, there are special opportunities – or classes – that can help high school students narrow down their choices and focus in on the type of career they will be successful at and enjoy.

One of those is the Health Occupations Class, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year at HSHS St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.

The class was first started in 1980 in the Mattoon area.

“A group of business leaders in Charleston and Mattoon recognized the need of a continued pipeline of healthcare workers,” said Laura Sullivan, the system director for the Eastern Illinois Education for Employment System, the organization that oversees the program. “They helped create a healthcare exploration class so students could learn about the opportunities available in healthcare.”

Beginning with the 1992-93 school year, it was decided to expand the program to include classrooms at St. Anthony Memorial Hospital in Effingham and Shelbyville Memorial Hospital (it’s HSHS Good Shepherd Hospital today).

Twelve students signed up for the class that first year in Effingham. By the second year, a second class was necessary. At first, only students from Effingham and Teutopolis high schools could participate. Today, approximately 60 students from several area high schools are enrolled in the class.

“At first, it was only with hospitals,” Sullivan explained. “But as the interest increased through the years, the teachers worked hard to form partnerships with a wide variety of healthcare professionals in the community. That, in turn, provided many more opportunities for the students.”

Today, students can actually spend time with just about any healthcare field they wish – from a doctor’s office to a hospital; from a dentist to a veterinarian; from childcare to a funeral home; from a surgery center to a variety of therapy specialties; from a pharmacy to a school nurse. And that’s just naming a few.

“Many of the students don’t know what they want to be,” said JoEllen Armstrong, a registered nurse (RN) at St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital with 33 years of experience, and an instructor for the Health Occupations Class for the past 24 years. “That’s one of the main things that’s significant about this class. It helps determine the direction they want to go.

“Sometimes, it helps them decide specifically what they want to do in healthcare,” Armstrong added. “Sometimes, they discover they don’t want to go into healthcare. And that’s okay. It’s important they make that decision before going on to college.”

Locally, the class meets in the Bernsmeyer Office Building on the hospital campus (the former convent) across from the emergency room. The class meets every school day through the entire year. There are three classes throughout the day that run 1 hour and 45 minutes each. There is a maximum of 24 students per class.

This year, there are high school seniors from eight schools – Effingham, Teutopolis, St. Anthony, Dieterich, Casey-Westfield, Cowden-Herrick, Neoga and Beecher City.

“There are no parameters as to who can attend,” Armstrong said. “We just ask school counselors to send us students who will have good attendance and commitment. Students in this program need so many hours of classroom time, plus time spent at other healthcare facilities. They can’t miss school.”

From August through March, classroom time is spent teaching the foundation of nursing. Topics such as personal care, patients’ rights, communication and safety, professionalism, anatomy and physiology and body systems will be taught.

The next phase is the Career Exploration portion. Students will select five healthcare careers that interest them. They will write a cover letter and set up a time to spend time at each of the healthcare options they selected.

“They have to sell themselves and let the healthcare professionals know why they should work with them,” Armstrong noted. “Our local healthcare places have been very receptive and we’re extremely grateful.”

Students will spend time at each of those healthcare facilities from March through May.

The students will receive a grade, both through their high school and through Lake Land College. In addition to fulfilling their high school requirements, they will also earn eight credit hours through LLC for the Certified Nursing Assistance Program and three credit hours for the Career Exploration Program.

This year, Armstrong is sharing teaching duties with Christy Shoemaker, an RN that has been at St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital for 10 years. Even though this is her first year as an instructor, she is a former student of the class and a former student of Armstrong’s.

“My mom was a nurse, but I was on the fence about what I wanted to do until the Health Occs class,” Shoemaker recalled. “That class made a huge impact on me, especially my last day.”

That’s when she experienced her first patient going through cardiac arrest. She actually performed CPR and compressions on that patient.

“That’s when I knew I wanted to be a nurse,” Shoemaker said. “Being in that environment helped me decided. It convinced me that’s what I wanted to be.”

Alex Turner and Jeremiah Roberts have a similar story.

At that time, Roberts was an emergency room technician in St. Anthony’s emergency room and Turner was a student in the Health Occs class.

“My mom was also in healthcare,” Turner said. “She is the one that opened my eyes to the field, but I had no idea what I wanted to do. This class helped make that decision for me.”

And he, too, can point to a specific day in ER.

“I still remember that day,” Turner noted. “A patient in full cardiac arrest came in. That creates an environment of controlled chaos, which I really liked. I also remember how calm Jeremiah was. Cardiac arrest is a very complicated situation, but everything ran smoothly in ER.

“That was my first real experience, but I’ve been in emergency medicine ever since,” Turner added. “The clinical portion of the Health Occs class was super helpful. I learned how to interact with people while I was taking care of them.”

Turner is now an RN in the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.

“I remember showing Alex the emergency trauma room and then the cardiac arrest came in,” Roberts, who is now a nurse at the hospital’s Wound Healing Center, recalled. “I told him to stay against the wall and watch what’s about to happen. It was going to be a real world experience.

“At times like that, you put personal emotions and feelings aside,” Roberts added. “I hope I relayed that to Alex. A professional appearance and how you treat people are very important to me. That’s what I wanted to see in the students. Alex had good instincts and a willingness to learn. I was impressed with that.”

Those stories are just two of many with similar experiences through the years. Today, more than 50 current colleagues at St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital went through the Health Occupations Class.

“The goal is to help them find something they can be in love with; something they really want to do,” Armstrong said. “Hopefully, we help make them good caregivers, no matter what they go into.

“I’ve had former students tell me this class made a difference in their lives,” Armstrong added. “I look back and see we’ve got former students in just about every healthcare field you can imagine. That’s very rewarding. That’s the impact this class can have.”  

Credit: (

STUDENTS GO 'BIG'                   

Eighth graders explore career options at Lake Land College event.

ROB STROUD, JG-TC  3/30/2023

MATTOON — Hundreds of area students met with representatives from dozens of professions on Thursday as the annual Eighth Grade Career Conference returned as an in-person event in the Lake Land College Field House following a COVID-19 hiatus.

Director Laura Sullivan said the Eastern Illinois Education for Employment System 340 office in Mattoon had still been able to hold the conference as a virtual event in recent years, but being back in person provides a unique opportunity for eighth graders to look over the various booths and interview professionals from trades they are curious about there.

"We hope we can get kids thinking about different careers and give them an opportunity to experience what they do or don't want to do," Sullivan said. She estimated that more than 1,500 eighth graders from 35 area schools would attend the conference's sessions on Thursday and Friday.

Keynote speaker Brooks Harper prepared the students to visit the booths by encouraging them to go "BIG" by "being professional," "interviewing" the representatives and "going forward" into plans for their future careers. 

Charleston Fire Department Lt. Jordan Philpott was among those staffing booths in the law and public safety section of the Field House. He said the eighth graders who stopped by his booth asked a lot of good questions, ranging from what's it like to wake up in the middle of the night to respond to a fire call to what's his favorite thing about being a firefighter.

"Having the opportunity to work in a city where I grew up and help people I know is very enjoyable for me," Philpott said.

Dieterich Junior High School student Charlie Albert shared a similar sentiment when asked why he decided to visit the Charleston Fire Department booth: "I like talking to people and helping people," he explained. Charlie said he visited the construction section booths, as well, because this trade would give him an opportunity to exercise his creativity in a practical way. 

Marshall Junior High School student Ally Sanders said she is interested in a possible career in nursing, so she made sure to visit the health science booths and enjoyed learning about good nutrition there. Ally said she also was drawn to the information technology booths by the "banana piano," adding that seeing fruit used as a musical instrument was entertainingly "weird." 

Lake Land College IT Instructor/Program Coordinator Scott Rhine said his department's "banana piano," in which the fruit is part of an electrical circuit device with an audio speaker, and their mixture of 3D-printed and LED-illuminated toys from the workshop usually catch the attention of eighth graders.

"That gets the conversation started," Rhine said, adding that interested students might then ask him about video game development or computer programming.

Douglas-Hart Nature Center Community Engagement Coordinator Rachel Bradbury said many students stopped by her booth in the tourism and hospitality section to see Wendell, a 60-year-old box turtle that resides in the site's visitor center.

Bradbury said she talked to the students about how having a background in biological sciences is important for working at a nature center, but so are "soft skills" such as being a good communicator who is organized and responsible.

After paying a visit to Wendell the turtle, Marshall Junior High School classmates Myah Boyd and Carly Foley said they enjoyed learning about the Douglas-Hart Nature Center and liked the format of the career conference, as a whole. 

"I think it really helps you to find out what you want to do," Myah said. Carly added that the Field House was crowded with students, but she enjoyed being able to walk around the booths. Carly said, "It's really nice to move around and not be in a lecture."