In the first months of 2015, Erie, Pa., experienced an uptick in violence, drug-related crimes and murders.

One particular homicide of a promising young student hit the local hospital staff and the rest of the Erie community hard, says James Donnelly, R.N., chief nursing and quality officer at UPMC Hamot.

Equally troubled by such violence, Bishop Dwane Brock, head of Victory Christian Center of Erie, approached Donnelly after a board meeting in spring 2015, and they started brainstorming. They knew that young adults in inner-city Erie were struggling with the effects of generational poverty, including the inability to land and hold full-time jobs.

So Brock and Donnelly partnered. In September 2015, Brock created the first part of Eagle’s Nest, a four-week employability program, in which he teaches the basics: how to interview for a job; how to dress appropriately for an interview; and how to behave in the workplace.

Quayshawna Pennamon, 26, of Erie, had just become unemployed when she learned about the Eagle’s Nest Employability Initiative at UPMC Hamot through her church.

Before losing her job, Pennamon had worked as a caregiver for a terminally ill individual, but she’d never worked in a hospital setting. Pennamon graduated from the program in April 2016 and now works fulltime at UPMC Hamot as a patient care technician. Her benefits package includes health insurance and tuition assistance.

“I learned, ‘attitude determines your altitude,’” says Pennamon. The second half of the program places students in a four-week internship at UPMC Hamot where they learn an entry-level job skill, such as nurse aide, transporter, dietary worker or housekeeper.

The situation in Erie motivated everyone and helped Donnelly make the program a strategic priority. “We had incredible buy-in,” he says. “Staff at the hospital were just lining up to be mentors.”

When they complete the program, students apply for existing vacancies at UPMC Hamot. If hired, they are given full-time employment with a full benefits package, which includes $5,000 per year in tuition reimbursement. Donnelly hopes to find funding to provide additional education for graduates who are interested in becoming registered nurses.

Since beginning the program, Eagle’s Nest has graduated seven cohorts of about 15 students each, and UPMC Hamot now has more than 80 employees who are Eagle’s Nest graduates.

Donnelly says the program has been successful so far, and staff have been looking at ways to expand and scale it, including finding additional places for graduates to apply other than UPMC Hamot. For example, some have also found employment at a day care and home for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Pennamon says she was nervous when she first started, finding the program “a little intimidating,” but she soon became more comfortable. “It gave me the tools I needed to know how to carry myself, how to have a good attitude, how to be professional and how to talk to people,” she says. “I really like the people I work with, my co-workers are awesome, and I love my boss. I feel like I can go to her for anything. I’ve built a lot of nice relationships here.”

Pennamon plans to take advantage of the tuition assistance that is part of her benefits package at UPMC Hamot to go to school to become a registered nurse.

“We’re really proud of these young people — and what they’re learning and what they’re doing,” says Donnelly. “We’re continuing to press every avenue we can to expand and make this program even more transformative for our community.”