SARASOTA — Growing up in Mexico City, Marcia Camarillo was always a top student. They used to hand her the national flag to lead parades at school functions. When she emigrated to Sarasota as a teenager who didn't speak English, school wasn’t as easy.
After 11 years since her last time in a classroom, Camarillo, now 30, walked on stage Wednesday with seven other women. They all graduated as certified nursing assistants through a program that targets mothers of children in local schools with high percentages of low-income families.
Since 2013, six groups of women have been certified. The program is part of a two-generation approach that aims to help kids succeed by investing in their parents’ education. Research by the nonprofit the Aspen Institute shows “a strong link between maternal education and outcomes for children, particularly school readiness for kindergartners.”
The job prospects for CNAs are excellent, said Angela Clarke, a registered nurse who taught the class. “We need CNAs very much. They’ll be offered jobs before they even pass their exams.”
This was the first year that the program partnered with the Suncoast Technical College. The college helped Alta Vista Elementary set up a room with the right equipment so that future CNAs can complete their certification at the elementary school. Seeing the success of the CNA program, Alta Vista is also expanding the parent courses to include other technical certifications.
Most of the mothers who participate in the program are stay-at-home moms or work multiple part-time jobs just to make ends meet. Becoming certified CNAs won’t lift them out of poverty — the median annual salary for CNAs in Sarasota is $27,724 — but it’s a stepping stone.
“This is about getting them started on the path to economic security,” said John Annis, senior vice president at the Community Foundation of Sarasota. The fees are covered by the Community Foundation and individual donors. Out of pocket, the course would cost nearly $1,000.
It’s also about giving them the confidence that will in turn impact their children, said Jacqueline Ekstrom, a social worker at Alta Vista Elementary who helps identify women who would be a good fit for the program.
“I wanted to do this to have something that would back me up,” Camarillo said. “I didn't just want to be a stay-at-home mom. I wanted my kids to be proud of me.” She said she thought about quitting the course. She wasn’t the only one. Two women had dropped out halfway.
Kristelle Stevens was tired of being a bartender.
“I wanted to build a career and make my daughter proud,” she said. Like other women who have been through the program, Stevens is not stopping here. “I started to look for things I could do after this,” she said. She wants to become a neonatal nurse next.
At the graduation, when most of the adults had their backs turned, some of the children sat onstage, in seats formerly occupied by their mothers. Feet dangling, they shouted again and again, “We’re graduating! We’re graduating!”