GAINES TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A partnership between Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and Michigan colleges aimed at addressing a shortage of nurses has produced its first graduates.

In 2012, Ben Weissenborn graduated with a degree in photojournalism from Central Michigan University. After changing career paths, he found himself working with children as a psychiatric technician at Pine Rest in Cutlerville in 2016.

“When I was a teenager, I had a tough time and so can relate and having an adult who has been through it and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve been there, I know what you’re going through,'” Weissenborn said. “That’s something I found kids really valued.”

After being convinced by a co-worker, Weissenborn began working toward becoming a psychiatric nurse. Last year, he enrolled in a second-degree program at Grand Valley State University.

“It was kind a big career shift but one that I think happened really naturally and just kind of started from working here (at Pine Rest),” Weissenborn said.

Weissenborn is now one of the first graduates of the Pine Rest Academy for Nursing Students. It’s a partnership with 10 Michigan colleges that gives students up to $40,000 in tuition assistance if they work part-time at Pine Rest during nursing school and two years full-time after graduation.

“Rather than trying to compete in the community for bringing nurses to our hospital, we said, ‘What can we do to create more nurses in the community?'” said Gretchen Johnson, the chief nurse executive at Pine Rest.

Johnson said the 35 students currently in the program will help with an ongoing shortage of nurses that many health systems are experiencing.

“We know that patients are waiting in emergency rooms because there’s nowhere else for them to go and we need to make sure we have open access and part of that is having enough to provide care,” Johnson said.

Jessie Penning is a Calvin University graduate who did nursing clinicals at Pine Rest. She also took part in the Pine Rest Academy and says she originally had concerns about becoming a psychiatric nurse.

“There’s a lot of stigma around psych nursing. There’s this belief it’s a really scary or even impossible job and so that kind of made me apprehensive,” Penning said.

Boosted by an opportunity for financial assistance and hands-on experience, plus her previous experience at Pine Rest, she’s now looking forward to a career of helping others.

“You see people coming in who aren’t able to speak because they are so confused and in such a period of crisis and by the time they leave, they’re able to have full conversations. I’ve been seeing some really amazing things,” Penning said.

Pine Rest is expecting an additional three students to complete the academy this winter.