Dysha Spady always wanted to be a certified nursing assistant, like her mother and the women she watched care for her grandmother in hospice. So when she saw an internet posting about a program that would connect her to the required training, she jumped at the opportunity.

Calling the number in the post connected her with Level Up. The federally funded program sponsored by Baltimore City supports young adults ages 18 to 24 as they work toward certification in promising career fields. Run by Catholic Charities, Level Up connects participants to workforce-development partners who train certified and geriatric nursing assistants (CNA/GNA), child care providers, auto repair specialists or heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) experts.

Tracey Rice, case manager for Level Up, said she remembers Spady coming in for the first time in September. The program is geared to people facing significant obstacles, and for some, even the intake process – which includes paperwork, an interview and an assessment – can be too daunting. But Spady was determined. She arrived with all of the required documents, returned for the required testing, and “from that point forward, she has just really stuck to it,” Rice said.

“I’m a single mom of two kids – a 3-year-old and a 5-year old – so I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do,” Spady said. “And CNA/GNA is something I always wanted to do.”

Working for what you want

The COVID-19 pandemic added to trainees’ challenges as workforce partner IT Works shifted to an all- virtual format.

“It was what I expected, but much harder. And it’s harder doing it virtually – I would rather be hands on,” Spady said. “It’s basically like having a job. This has got to be something that you actually want.”

The trainings are intense. IT Works’ CNA program, for example, runs for five or more hours daily over six weeks. Level Up enables participation by providing a stipend for attendance. And while partners provide the trainings, Level Up staff follow participants’ progress, wrapping them in any supports they need to succeed, whether that’s a connection to a day care program, a financial literacy training, or legal aid.

“I am a social worker by trade, and I stick on them as much as they let me,” Rice said about Level Up participants. “All along through the classes, I’m talking to them about what’s next … I send them links. I send them phone numbers. I send them emails. … I swing the bat to make sure they get what they need.”

At the start of the program, Spady struggled to pass quizzes. But the IT Works teacher offered advice on how to adjust her study habits. By the end of class, she had a 3.5 GPA and received not only her CNA and GNA certifications, but also an award for being the most improved student. She is now meeting with potential employers to put her skills to use.

This is something I needed. I always wanted to be a CNA/GNA,” Spady said. “If you have your mind set, you can do it.”