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Nursing Nightingale
Sutton-Vereen leads initiative to bolster local workforce
By Nicole Harbour

Mikal Sutton-Vereen's life has been a series of surprises. Pleasant surprises. From working on two ground-breaking campaigns that led to the first African-American U.S. president, to serving as a constituent services agent for then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, to being named the program director for the Central Illinois Nursing Initiative in August 2009, Sutton-Vereen's life has taken several twists and turns.

But she wouldn't have it any other way.

Born and raised in Springfield, Sutton-Vereen's roots have always been in central Illinois, and even in Illinois politics. The daughter of Thomas Sutton and Linda Frey, Sutton-Vereen says a lot of her political interest came from her father.

"I got that (my interest in politics) from my dad, who is a union plumber with Local 137. Unions are a powerful thing, and they certainly get you involved in politics," Sutton-Vereen says.

Though she didn't know it growing up, her interest in politics would vastly change her life. Originally an elementary education major at Illinois State University, Sutton-Vereen's plans changed when, after three years of college, she decided to take a break from school, returned to Springfield and after working various jobs, decided to pursue a communications degree, involving an applied study term, at the University of Illinois Springfield.

"I really wanted to work as an intern in Sen. Durbin's office for my AST, but they only had short-term positions available and I needed several months' worth of experience," Sutton-Vereen explains.

"I went to the AST advisor, and she suggested I research Obama's campaign to see if it would be something I would want to do. I already knew about him ... so I decided to give it a shot. I called the campaign office the next day and asked if they could use me. They said sure - and the rest is history."

Sutton-Vereen interned with Barack Obama's office through his campaign for U.S. Senator, and in August 2005 became a constituent services agent for then-Sen. Obama, working primarily on health-care issues, including Medicare, and serving Obama through his presidential inauguration in January 2009. Her experience as a constituent-services agent launched her interest in health care, and served as the perfect stepping stone to the Central Illinois Nursing Initiative.

"My job as a constituent-services agent absolutely helped me become more interested in health care," Sutton-Vereen says. "I worked on health-care issues in Illinois, south of Chicago," fielding questions and handling complaints about health care and social security from Illinois residents in then-U.S. Sen. Obama's constituency, "and it really became important to me to make it (health care) a large priority."

Sutton-Vereen's passion for health care made her the perfect candidate for the new program director for the Central Illinois Nursing Initiative, or CINI, a local initiative intended to address diversity, educational infrastructure and faculty development in the nursing field. Part of the larger national initiative, Partners Investing in Nursing's Future, CINI is being facilitated by the Sangamon County Community Foundation, the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerceand several other local partners. The SCCF was chosen as one of 10 new partners to receive funding from PIN in efforts to address the long-term shortage of available nurses across the country.

Led by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Northwest Health Foundation, PIN provides support to local foundations to act as catalysts in their communities and to develop strategies and ideas for creating and sustaining a viable nursing workforce.

While PIN's leading foundations awarded the SCCF and GSCC $250,000 in August 2009, CINI's other partners, including Memorial Health Systems, St. John's Hospital, Kindred Healthcare Foundation and several other Springfield medical providers and educational facilities, have raised more than the required matching funds.

"The community was meant to match the $250,000 that the PIN partners awarded us, but they exceeded it, coming up with $295,000, amounting in $545,000 that CINI can use over the next two years," Sutton-Vereen says. "Springfield went above and beyond the call of duty."

The $545,000 will be dispersed by the SCCF and the GSCC through CINI to expand Lincoln Land Community College's associate degree in nursing program to alleviate the growing waiting list for admission, add an accelerated second degree bachelor's of science in nursing at St. John's College of Nursing to attract more students who are likely to stay in the Springfield area and work after they complete their degree, as well as create a master's level nursing program at Benedictine University to prepare nurses for faculty positions. CINI will also reach out to under-represented groups in nursing, which not only include ethnic and racial minorities but also men, Sutton-Vereen says.

The PIN grant award to the SCCF marks the second funding award in Illinois that PIN has made, the first being awarded in 2007 to the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation in Bloomington. Jennie Collings, who worked as the director of medical development for the GSCC from March 2008-July 2009, helped obtain the first funding award for Illinois Prairie Community Foundation in 2007 and was an active force in procuring Springfield's grant. Now system director for workforce planning and development for Memorial Health Systems, Collings believes that Sutton-Vereen is the best person to drive CINI and help Springfield's nursing workforce.

"Part of me had a hard time letting go of CINI, but it's a comfort to me that Mikal is so dedicated to it. She has hit the ground running, and it has been a pleasure working with her," Collings says.

While the combination of medical, nonprofit, educational and business that CINI has inspired in Springfield is unique, Sutton-Vereen's passion and enthusiasm for health care, community and change are working wonders for this local initiative.

"Mikal came in late (after the SCCF had already obtained the PIN grant), but she picked up the ball and ran with it. She knows what she's doing, and she's done a great job," says Cynthia Maskey, dean of health professions at Lincoln Land Community College. "She's not a nurse, and yet she seems to really understand how things work and why it's so important to create a sustainable nursing workforce."

"She's bursting with enthusiasm for her work, and it's contagious," John Stremsterfer, executive director of the SCCF, explains.

For now, Sutton-Vereen and others are working to implement Lincoln Land's weekend associate degree in nursing program, which will begin January 2010, Maskey says.

Other immediate goals include focusing on sustainability, which involves collaborating with nursing programs in the state, as well as learning from and communicating with other PIN partners and grantees throughout the country.

CINI has a lot of work left to do, but Sutton-Vereen's enthusiasm and health care experience seem to be the perfect prescription for bolstering Springfield's nursing workforce. Sutton-Vereen's life and career may have been a series of surprises, but her continuing success seems to be no surprise to Springfield and the many partners of CINI.

"I'm just thrilled to be here, and to be part of this and all of the local support," Sutton-Vereen says. "The partners have really made this happen, and hopefully CINI and all of this collaboration will bring Springfield to a whole new level."

 

Story published Friday, December 4, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 7 )

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