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Funding the construction of a children’s hospital is one thing. There is no shortage of concrete, windows and lumber. Staffing the region’s needs for well-trained pediatric health care professionals is a quite different challenge, especially with the rising cost of tuition.

JENNIFER MCGINNIS SCHOLARSHIP RECCIPIENTMeet Jennifer McGinnis, a SWFL Children’s Charities, Inc. scholarship recipient in the Florida SouthWestern State College (FSW) Dental Hygiene program. In 2009, just as the 17-year-old was graduating from high school and beginning her studies at FSW, her family lost their home to foreclosure. For a period of time, as they worked to get back on their feet, the family lived in a bus, with McGinnis’s father sleeping in a tent outside because there wasn’t enough room.

The family now has their home back, but McGinnis still depends on financial aid to help pay for her education, and she works to cover the rest. Her scholarship from SWFL Children’s Charities, Inc. has allowed her to work less and focus more on school as she completes her Associate of Science degree.

“I’m able to be here and devote all of me to this program now,” says McGinnis. “It’s made an impact on my grades and performance. It’s really relieved a lot of stress, and I’m excited to start my career. I feel well-prepared.”

In May, McGinnis will complete the program and prepare for the Dental Hygiene National Board and the state board necessary to become a licensed dental hygienist. In the meantime, she is putting her training to work by giving cleanings and oral hygiene instruction to children at the FSW clinic. Her work helps in-need patients avoid a range of serious health problems later in life, and the experience she gains at the clinic will help her perform on the job when she becomes licensed.

“We see a lot of children who really need help, and it gives me so much joy to see kids excited about their oral health and learning to take better care of themselves. It has been life-changing,” says McGinnis.

To help address the growing need for quality health care professionals like McGinnis, SWFL Children’s Charities, Inc. has pledged $1 million over the next five years to FSW for scholarships, equipment, technology and software. Additionally, $1 million has been pledged to The College of Health Professions and Social Work at Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) over five years.

An FGCU scholarship recipient, Ashley Saldarriaga hopes to work at Golisano Children’s Hospital as a pediatrician one day. The freshman is a Miami native who moved to Fort Myers at the age of 13 with her mother and sister. An active volunteer throughout high school, she has demonstrated her passion for helping children. A full scholarship from SWFL Children’s Charities, Inc. will help her complete her degree in Biology, a major milestone in achieving her dream of becoming a pediatrician.

ASHLEY SALDARRIAGA SCHOLARSHIP RECIPIENT“I think of each dollar as a pound off my shoulders,” said Saldarriaga, who has worked two jobs since the age of 16 to help her mother make ends meet. “Every time I hear someone talk about buying a textbook or paying a bill, I think of my scholarship.”

Saldarriaga says the scholarship has helped her mother as much as it has helped her. Ashley’s sister also attends FGCU, and the family’s educational expenses have been mounting. What Ashley wants donors to know is this:

“One day, not today, tomorrow or next week, but someday I will be a pediatrician, and I’ll be helping kids because of this scholarship.”

FSW and FGCU programs were selected because of their proven success in cultivating the next generation of pediatric health professionals, backed by hard numbers including a national board passing rate of nearly 100 percent, and equally impressive job placement for graduates.
One can already see how funds dedicated to these local education programs are nurturing to the pediatric health profession in Southwest Florida with students and graduates volunteering, interning and working at Golisano Children’s Hospital.

Given the nationwide shortage of pediatric nurses, Brigitta Schwingendorf is another compelling example of valuable home-grown talent. Schwingendorf is a graduate of FSW who has gone on to join the team at Golisano Children’s Hospital as a pediatric nurse. The young professional always dreamed of working with children and taught first grade before returning to school for her nursing degree. She has been a pediatric nurse at Golisano Children’s Hospital for six years now.
“The new Golisano Children’s Hospital will attract the best health care professionals to our area, and the health/science scholarships we provide will bring this initiative full circle,” said Debbie Toler, trustee and member of the board of directors, SWFL Children’s Charities, Inc. “Many of the students educated locally will begin their career at this amazing hospital.”