Career development program offers hope and empowerment

Instead of simply handing out money, a local organization provides hope and life-changing opportunities to people living with poverty through its career development program.

The West Michigan Center for Arts and Technology -- better known as WMCAT -- offers an 11-month program that trains and supports low income or unemployed adults for careers in the medical coding, medical billing or pharmacy technician fields.

The most unusual aspect is that these courses, which are estimated to cost roughly $13,000 per person, are free to those who qualify financially and demonstrate a commitment to the program.

“It’s a free program and that’s what sets it apart,” says Amy Knape, WMCAT Development Coordinator. “We want to help people who may not be able to succeed in a traditional program.”

The Adult Career Training program is not government funded but instead supported through donations by foundations, corporations and individuals.   

The program began seven years ago when WMCAT opened and it is the first replication of a proven model developed by Bill Strickland at the Pittsburg-based Manchester Bidwell Corporation.

Since 2005, 109 adults have graduated from the program with nearly 75 percent employed in West Michigan’s thriving healthcare industry. Compared to other similar programs around the country, this placement rate is high due in part to strong relationships with members of the healthcare community, and many are on the WMCAT advisory board.

In July, 19 more students will graduate after completing a six-week, hands-on externship at Spectrum Health, St. Mary’s Healthcare or a local pharmacy, depending on their area of study. Class sizes are intentionally kept small to offer more personalized training and to avoid “flooding the market” with qualified talent.

The first step for people wishing to enter WMCAT’s Adult Career Training program is to attend an informational session. After an application has been filled out, each person must go through a criminal background check and get pre-tested to determine math and reading skills.

Applicants are then screened for success through experiential-based interviews. The staff at WMCAT realizes that life can be challenging for those living in poverty, so they look at what kind of support system each person has in place and what possible barriers exist that may prevent them from graduating. Questions are asked about how the person will get to class, pay their bills and handle child care as well as what their motivation is for taking the course.
“It’s a complicated approach to a complicated situation,” Development Director Louise “Punky” Edison says about the process.

In addition to professional health care training, participants are also taught personal development skills such as how to work with the public, create a resume and use standard office software.

WMCAT’s students are well prepared to succeed in the healthcare industry by the time they graduate from this empowering and life-changing program. For many, confidence and hope are restored and, as one student recently told Edison, the training made her “feel powerful again."

A statement on WMCAT’s website reads, “Making a difference in a community is never a challenge. It’s a reward.” If you would like to reward WMCAT’s efforts for making a difference in our community, here are some ways you can:

-    Visit WMCAT online to find out more about the adult programs as well as programs for high school students.
-    Donate cash or in-kind goods and services to WMCAT.
-    Visit the international fundraising site, See Your Impact, and click “like.” A $5 donation will be made to WMCAT’s youth program when you do.
-    Like them on Facebook.

Sources: Louise “Punky” Edison, WMCAT Development Director, and Amy Knape, Development Coordinator

Writer: Heidi Stukkie, Do Good Editor

Photos provided by WMCAT.
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