Mother-Son Reunion Highlights CNA Celebration

Cassandra Emanuel received more than a certificate denoting her completion of United Way Suncoast’s Certified Nursing Assistant program this month.

At a July 1 graduation ceremony celebrating the latest cohort to finish the program, Cassandra received an incredible surprise: a visit from her son Jaheim Degale, who serves in the U.S. Army and is stationed in Germany. Jaheim, who hadn’t seen his mother in nearly 10 months, made the unannounced trip because the CNA program means that much to his mom, and to him.

“I’m excited,” said Cassandra, a mother of three who relocated from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Tampa Bay more than a year ago. “I have a big heart for service.”

Having completed the eight-week training course, implemented in cooperation with Hillsborough Community College’s Allied Health Institute for Corporate and Continuing Education, Cassandra will now look to pass the state’s CNA licensing test and earn a job. It’s a path many have already followed since United Way Suncoast initiated the program last fall. The latest group represents the fourth cohort and the results reflect the success: all 36 students who enrolled completed the training. Despite a state backlog on testing, many have earned their CNA licenses.

Equally important, the students report having a greater sense of confidence and purpose because the training includes life skills lessons and words of encouragement from representatives of multiple agencies. Kimberly Miller, the UWS senior manager for community development who oversees the program, refers to this group as the village, and once again the village lifted up the students, including motivational speaker Sarina Babb, who addressed the candidates at the graduation.

Consider the story of Francheska Castillo, who entered the program battling uncertainty, but now has her sights set on going beyond CNA status and becoming a registered nurse.

“When I first started this course, I was depressed. I felt like I was doing nothing,” said Francheska, who attended the ceremony with her son Jexiel and her boyfriend Jairo Santiago. “But as soon as I started, I got so much better. I thought I wasn’t going to finish, but I did.

“Kim was the best. She helped me with everything. She was there above and beyond, always, helping me with everything. She’s the best.”

Both Cassandra and Francheska will aim to land jobs with area hospitals who are working closely with United Way Suncoast to place the CNA students. Two other students, Carla Christie and Michelle Gomez, already have landed jobs with BayCare.

Shanteah Jacobs, a member of the first cohort, often returns to share her success stories. She’s realized a steady income as a travel CNA, working at hospitals in Tennessee, New York, and Texas. Now, she’ll settle down with a full-time position with AdventHealth.

These are not exceptions. A recent survey of those who have completed the training expressed 100 percent satisfaction. Everyone who responded also said they would recommend the program to others.

The final cohort of 2022 begins on Nov. 10, with information sessions scheduled for Oct. 11 at 12pm and 6pm. For more information, call the United Way Suncoast Sulphur Springs Resource Center at (813) 936-3064, or email


The funding for the program is provided by Quest Diagnostics.

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