Priscilla Williams’ daughter knew exactly what she wanted to do well before turning 18.

Through the Career Readiness Academy at Sierra High School, Williams’ daughter started her certified nursing assistant (CNA) training at Pikes Peak Community College. At 17, she graduated from Sierra with an associate degree and CNA license, and is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

But Williams, a nurse practitioner (NP), found that her daughter needed a little extra guidance that she wasn’t getting from the large class sizes at PPCC. So, she began mentoring her daughter and other young people working to earn a CNA license.

“We did that for a whole year in our home,” Williams told the Express recently. “We met every Sunday — fed them, gave them supplies, just encouraged them to continue their path, and all that good stuff.”

Williams and her husband Billy even bought textbooks and supplies so that the students who couldn’t afford their own could rent them instead.

“After doing that for a year, I really felt like this was something that needed to be done on a broader scale, because the group got bigger than the house could hold,” Williams recalled.

That’s how the idea for Heart to Heart Academy, a new business offering CNA training and mentorship at the Mission Trace Shopping Center, was born.

Williams first approached Pastor Ben Anderson, the executive director of the Solid Rock Community Development Corporation, “when I knew that we needed to do what we were doing on a bigger scale.” Anderson advised Priscilla and Billy to enroll in the Fresh Start Initiative, a business training program funded through the state’s Transforming Safety project.

Fresh Start, a partnership with the Small Business Development Center, is offered to formerly incarcerated people and those with family members involved in the justice system. Participants in the intensive, eight-week program learn how to develop a viable business plan; track cash flow; determine costs, revenue and profit; and create a marketing strategy.

Gina Peterson, project manager at Solid Rock, says the Fresh Start Initiative offered around four sessions in the community last year, and is currently focused on developing Southeast businesses that have already been started by the program’s graduates. Besides Heart to Heart, they include two catering businesses, a dog grooming business, a garment printing business and more.

The program “was really beneficial,” Williams says, “because obviously, I’m a nurse practitioner, so I know a lot about medical things, but I knew nothing about business. So that class was essential for us getting our foundation on how to be business owners.”

After graduating from Fresh Start, Williams and her husband moved their business into a former beautician’s parlor at 3239 S. Academy Blvd. in June. Heart to Heart Academy was approved by the state’s Department of Regulatory Agencies in October, and Priscilla Williams, who’s currently the building’s sole instructor, began teaching students the following month.

Since then, Heart to Heart has graduated three classes through the four-week program. Class sizes are small — most have only included four or five people — and Williams wants to keep them that way, even if demand increases to the point where she has to hire more teachers.

“I have had nursing instructors that I couldn’t even reach out to if I wanted to,” Williams said. “That bond, and that bridge wasn’t there, and we’re bringing that back here. We’re open on Saturdays for people to practice their skills.”

Two mother-and-daughter pairs have graduated from Heart to Heart’s CNA training, she added.

The training is affordable compared with other programs, Williams said, and those wishing to sponsor a student’s tuition can donate through Solid Rock Christian Center. Students receive a uniform, stethoscope and blood pressure cuff upon graduation.

In Colorado, you must earn a CNA license before pursuing further education to become a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Registered Nurse (RN) or NP. But students hoping to enter the career field right after completing CNA training won’t find a problem, Williams said.

“Demand,” she said, “is just ridiculous.”

The number of nurse assistants in the U.S. is projected to grow by 9 percent between 2018 and 2028, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — much faster than the average job growth rate of 5 percent across all occupations. Job openings for registered nurses, meanwhile, are projected to grow 12 percent over the same time period. (Colorado in particular has identified a shortage of RNs to replace those reaching retirement age.)

Williams builds resume and interview skills into the training and has worked to build relationships with employers who need CNAs.

So far, she says, most graduates of Heart to Heart’s CNA training wanted to enter the workforce immediately, and all of those people have been able to find medical jobs in the community.

Gwendolyn Johnson, who graduated from Sierra High School in 2019, earned her CNA license last month.

“I learn better with smaller classes, and the class size is only 10 kids [maximum], so you still are learning but you don’t feel nervous to ask questions in front of a lot of people,” Johnson recalled of her experience at Heart to Heart. “You get really comfortable with everybody.”

Johnson always wanted to become a nurse because she loved helping people, but recently got discouraged when a biology professor told her she might want to rethink nursing as a career when she didn’t do well on a test.

“I talked to Ms. Priscilla [Williams] about it, and Ms. Priscilla always told me, like, don’t get discouraged at what people tell me,” Johnson said. “She’s always helped me and kept me motivated to keep going.”

Currently, Johnson is participating in Heart to Heart’s mentorship program while she prepares to pursue her RN through community college. Williams also mentors LPNs pursuing education to become RNs, and RNs preparing to become NPs.

Williams still works as an NP herself and teaches CNA classes in the evenings — demonstrating her passion for the job, which she calls her “ministry.” That means providing a supportive, caring environment for all of her students.

“I am not here to make you fail,” Williams explained. “I am not here to make school hard for you. … Now, if you don’t want to learn, I can’t help you. But if you want to learn, I will find a way to teach you.

“The quality of the education we’re providing,” she added, “is, in my opinion, second to none.”

faith@csindy.com

Reporter

Faith Miller is a Colorado Springs native and a 2018 graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Miller’s past experience includes a multiplatform editing internship at the Los Angeles Times.