WESLACO, Texas A fantastic byproduct of a new federally-approved apprenticeship program for allied health workers is that more institutions in the Rio Grande Valley are working together.

This is the view of Anabell Cardona, president and CEO of Valley Grande Institute for Academic Studies. 

“I told Commissioner Alvarez that besides the overall focus of the apprenticeship program… I said, you also initiated this bond for us to work together, to work more closely together, for the best of our region,” Cardona said. 

“So that is the other thing that has happened. Because now it brings other key players into the picture, whereas before, we knew of each other, we communicated here and there but not as closely as we do now.”

Cardona recently gave an in-depth to the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service about the new allied health profession apprenticeship program. She said a huge amount of praise must go to former Texas Workforce Commissioner Julian Alvarez for initiating the program and said that it helped lead the way to a unique partnership her non-profit has forged with UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

Cardona said she could not stress highly enough the importance of the collaborations that have been forged.

“Valley Grande Institute works with different hospitals. The ones we are connected most closely with are Valley Baptist, Harlingen and Mission Hospital and so we were working Stephen Hill, the CNO at Valley Baptist and Cesar Guerra from Mission Hospital together with Cameron Works and Workforce Solutions and we started communicating via zoom, via text messages. And it continues on between all of us,” Cardona said.

“So, yes, the apprenticeship program is going to be incredible but has it done? It has spurred all of us to bring about this cross-sector collaboration. Each one of us has our own skill set but this is about all of us coming together.”

The collaborations extend to the offices of the county judges in the Valley, the economic development corporations, and RGV Focus, Cardona explained. “It is all the different support staff at these entities which off the wraparound services that help the students succeed.”

At the time of the interview with Cardona the number of apprenticeships for the various allied health programs had yet to be revealed. 

“So, the patient care technician is now an approved program as an in-demand occupation, which previously it wasn’t. It was only when we started to communicate with each that we realized exactly what the need is, versus each one of us working in silos,” Cardona said. 

“Communication is key. So, with this apprenticeship, what happened is I reached out to both Pat Hobbs’ office and Frank Almaraz, and said, a patient care technician is one of your in-demand occupations at the moment, they didn’t have it listed as such. Now it is and its support clinical staff for our LVNs, RNs and medical doctors.”

Pat Hobbs runs Cameron Works. Frank Almaraz runs Workforce Solutions.

Asked how Valley Grande Institute what it does and how it started, Cardona said: 

“Well, we have just celebrated our 30th anniversary. We were the first of our kind in the state of Texas. We started out as Valley Grande Academy in Weslaco and I took over 20 years ago. We are a private nonprofit and we have allied health programs and a vocational nursing program. And we have students throughout our four counties coming to Weslaco.”

The Guardian asked Cardona to go back to the beginning and explain how the new allied healthcare apprenticeship program came about. 

She said: “So back in March of 2022, Commissioner Alvarez launched this initiative of healthcare apprenticeship. There is clearly a need because we have a shortage of nurses, a shortage of healthcare workers. So, how do we address the need? It’s by being innovative, it is changing the system so that we collectively making a difference.”

Cardona said she and many other healthcare leaders attended a few meetings with Alvarez in Austin. These were followed up by virtual meetings on Zoom.

“Apprenticeships were new for all of us in the educational system. It was new to the healthcare systems. But, Commissioner Alvarez took the initiative and said, let’s make it work, let’s take the dive. He was – and this is where his skill set is – all about empowering people, urging us to change our way of thinking, to change our mindset,” Cardona said.

“And we were all, like, if this works,  fantastic, amazing. If it doesn’t, well, at least we gave it a try. But the Commissioner was so gung-ho and so supportive. He said, let’s be the first in Texas, let’s be the first in the region. Let’s be first and so his skill was in empowering us, our region, to step up to the plate.”

Cardona said that as best she can remember, Valley Grande Institute was the only career school at those initial meetings in Austin. “There was workforce development, there was different health care systems throughout the state. In one room there was approximately 80 attending.”

Cardona said she read up on apprenticeship programs but still wondered how it was going to work.

“I know nursing is in demand, the RNs, LVNs, and so forth. But, at the same time, the healthcare systems need entry level support staff. And so, moving forward, it was, how do we get this done? How can we help not just our community but our region to make things happen?”

“So, we at Valley Grande Institute started doing the research and we started communicating regionally. That is where I come in, as more of a connector. And it’s always for the best of everyone. And the best of our community and our region. So, I reached out to the different hospitals. What is your need? What is your number one need in workforce?”

Cardona is a long-time board member of the Rio Grande Valley Partnership, the Valley’s regional chamber of commerce. She said this allowed her to connect with even more people as the apprenticeship program was being formulated.

“It was about bringing everyone together. And as we did that we realized the great need for the entry level healthcare programs. We need these just as much as we need an RN program, just as much as we need the HVAC in the hospitals. At the end of the day, it was about apprenticeships. How do we help our students succeed in their education?”

Cardona said as they learned more about the concept of the apprenticeship program, “Valley Grande Institute just ran with it.” 

She explained: “It was like, we are going to support Commissioner Alvarez in this initiative and we’re going to do everything possible to make it happen. You know, we don’t come in to this from an RN program standpoint, from the community college aspect of it. We come in as a supporting, strong foundation to help them succeed in higher ed. And so we started working with the Department of Labor, with the Texas Workforce Commission.”

Cardona said she was pleasantly surprised how receptive the Department of Labor was.

“They were so receptive to our vision. Their response was, that is amazing, the Rio Grande Valley would so benefit from it. They said, we’re going to be here, we’re going to help you. And that is how we started working on this program. Then, one day, we received a packet at our office from the Department of Labor, and there was a certificate saying they had approved us for the apprenticeship program.”

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the first in a two-part series on Valley Grande Institute for Academic Studies. Part Two will focus on a new partnership with UT-Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows then-Texas Workforce Commissioner Julian Alvarez and Valley Grande Institute CEO Anabell Cardona.

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