ROCKLAND — Students training to be nursing assistants at Mid-Coast School of Technology come from varied backgrounds, but they all share a single motivation: To be of service in their communities.

Some members of Terry Adkin’s current Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program are still searching for a path, while others have years of life experience informing their decisions. At the younger end of the spectrum, Kahdejah Johnson, Molli Moholland, and Evan Landry are in their twenties. Johnson and Landry have held a variety of jobs since leaving school. Moholland is following in the footsteps of her sister, who completed MCST’s CNA certificate class in 2021.

“I was watching her and it looked like a reliable job,” the 22-year-old Moholland said, adding the ongoing need for skilled medical workers was a factor in her decision. “It is hard to balance work, school, and bills, but this is an emotionally renewing job — especially if people close to you are disabled.” She said she experienced this while taking care of a family member with cerebral palsy.

For Johnson, nursing seems a logical choice after years of struggling to find purpose. The day after graduating from high school, she moved to New York with $700 in her pocket. “I wanted to break with tradition,” Johnson said. “I struggled, but I lived there four years.” Finding work as a model, waitress, and receptionist in a hair salon, “I liked the fast life style, but in the long run it did burn me out.”

She missed the recreation to be found in nature and moved to Texas with a friend, but ended up “broke and confused” and decided to come home to Maine. When she got back, she found work as a tray aide at the Knox Center for Long Term Care in Rockland. Like Moholland, Johnson also has an older sibling who works as a CNA.

“I like helping people,” Johnson said. While working as a personal trainer at the Samoset, she began caring for elderly people in private settings, work she continues to do while she studies at MCST. “It was rewarding and fulfilling, and I wanted (to do) more.” She was inspired by the experience of caring for a woman in hospice care who was “… angry all the time. But at the end of her life she told me she loved me.”

“I don’t want to do anything anymore that’s purposeless.” Johnson said. “If I’m on my feet all day, at least I’m helping someone. If I’m not feeling positive, I go to work and it fills my heart again.”

Landry is 28. After earning his bachelor’s degree at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., he spent 11 years working “… in every position I could, except bartender.”

MCST student Evan Landry. Photo courtesy of Shlomit Auciello.

“It was amazing, fantastic, a great education, phenomenal opportunity, and then I burned out.” Landy said. The “thankless repetition of demand” was demoralizing. “You lose your passion quick,” he said. “I enjoyed cooking until I started doing it professionally. It killed my creativity.” Landry struggled with maintaining the food service lifestyle, but mental health issues and problems with alcohol made him look to a different type of service. “I never cooked to get rich, but to give, nourish, and care for others. I was putting myself at risk.”

“It took a lot to pull myself out of that.” Now, he is in recovery and training to care for the sick and needy.

Landry said giving is what matters. “I want to come out on the other side. I want to be better so I can give more so I have more to give. It is other people’s turn to receive.”

Elizabeth de Rivera worked remotely as a COVID-19 contact tracer, for Partners in Health in Massachusetts.

“I loved it,” Rivera said. “It was an honor and privilege to be part of that group.” Rivera said they were “radically committed to providing healthcare for everyone.” She has also worked in psychiatric wards with patients with eating disorders and other conditions that required behavioral counseling, and shifted to nursing care because she felt she could be of more help on the “front lines.” Like Moholland, she found it rewarding. “Being there for people is huge. What I do with my life has to have meaning.”

For Viktoriia O’Brien, training to become a CNA represents a return to the career she left behind in Ukraine. She is married to an American and, after 20 years together there, the family moved to the U.S. After some years as a seasonal resident of Maine, the O’Briens recently moved here full time, and she began searching for employment.

“I know I can be useful in the medical field,” said O’Brien, who was a surgical nurse in Ukraine and has a master’s degree in psychology.

In the class, “English is a challenge, but it’s a super interesting course.” After decades away from the medical profession, she is enjoying her return. “It’s an interesting field for me,” O’Brien said. “It’s people’s lives. It’s important and you can help.”

For 50-year-old Dwight Collins, there are many reasons to become a CNA. He said his current work as a full-time bartender is “not very convenient to family life.” Like Landry, he sees a high burnout rate in the hospitality and food service industries.

“Nursing is a different kind of people — different burnout,” Collins said. Collins would rather help people who are sick or injured than keep selling drinks to those who may have had enough. “It was a good job,” he said. “I made money, I’m local and knew people.” His mother was a CNA for 40 years and he decided to follow in her footsteps.

“I grew up in long term care facilities,” Collins said. After service in the army, where he worked in offices and as a medic, “It feels like the organizational structure in a hospital is similar.” With additional experience as a reporter and an EMT, Collins said he wants to help people with chronic conditions.

As varied as their reasons for choosing CNA training at MCST, the students’ expectations for the future run a wide range. Inspired by the television character Gregory House, M.D., O’Brien said she would love to find herself solving medical mysteries in five years. “I have always worked with people. I think that the best choice for me is medicine. You can build your own path.”

Instructor Terry Adkins, RN. Photo courtesy of Shlomit Auciello.

Landry agrees with instructor Terry Adkins, who said being of service is a choice. “Recovery is a journey of learning about myself. I might as well change for the better than take from the world.” Saying he wants to be part of something “bigger and more admirable like a hospital or long-term care unit,” he embraces the idea of an uncertain future.

Collins said his goals have changed in the past few weeks. Now 50, he started the course thinking he would get a nice secure job with the VA, where his Army time counts toward retirement. More recently, he is thinking about continuing his education to become a registered nurse. He said he is a natural teacher, and nods and chuckles in the room indicate that his classmates agree. “I’m not a natural follower. The military gave me leadership skills.”

Moholland said she hopes the classroom and clinical work she is doing will increase her confidence.

As for Johnson, she said there are a lot of old people in Maine and caring for them offers her financial security. Not a person to sit still for long, she doesn’t see herself going back to school after she completes the program, and looks forward to a career as a CNA or doing in-home care.