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May 4—PITTSBURG, Kan. — Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas broke ground on an estimated $6 million education center for health care professionals Monday as part of a grow-your-own initiative to improve the rural workforce shortage.

The 16,000-square-foot John U. Parolo Education Center, located west of the CHC clinic at 3015 N Michigan St. in Pittsburg, will be designed to support University of Kansas medical students at the clinic as well as the center's new Family Practice Residency Program. It will also be a resource for students of all ages interested in pursuing a career in health care, including premedical university students. The center will be outfitted with learning laboratories, classrooms and conference rooms. The project was primarily funded via private sources and $600,000 in city economic development funding.

The CHC provides medical, dental and behavioral health care to 70,000 people throughout Southeast Kansas. The 501(c)(3) organization opened in 2003 and operates 38 sites in seven counties. It employs more than 600, including 190 professionals.

"This is more than just a building," said Dan Minnis, chairman of the CHC Board of Directors. "It's a mission. and this is just as significant as Sister (Mary Bernard) Sheridan's mission back in 1903 — 118 years ago. It's more and just as significant as Krista Postai, our CEO's mission, 18 years ago in 2003 when she came over and started community health for us and got us off the ground."

The first class at the University of Kansas will start their residency program at the CHC this year and will study in Pittsburg during their last two years of school. Postai said it took roughly 15 years to establish the family practice residency in the region.

"We raised the money in less than a year, and realized I got tired of saying goodbye to doctors that we recruited that wanted to go to greener pastures, and you can't get greener than Southeast Kansas," Postai said. "We'll give them a reason to stay."

Grow-your-own health care workforce programs aim to recruit, retain and develop medical professionals who are already in the community. Studies show that only 2% of new doctors want to practice in cities with populations under 25,000.

Southeast Kansas is critically underserved in all areas of health care. By 2025, Kansas is projected to need an additional 290 primary care physicians just to meet current needs.

Construction on the building begins in the coming days and will be completed in summer 2022.

The John U. Parolo Education Center will offer a residency program in Pittsburg. It will also house a rural medicine training program for physicians and physician assistants, and postgraduate clinic training for licensure of professionals including pharmacists, social workers and psychologists.

Reta Baker, vice president of clinical education at the CHC, said that even during a pandemic, they've been able to pass nearly 200 individual students through the center's doors for educational opportunities from shadow experiences to long-term rotations. Baker described the education center as only the beginning.

"Just think what we can do when there isn't a pandemic, and we have limitations," she said. "It's going to be amazing. Residencies, fellowships, internships, externships — all of those final steps that get a person ready to engage in their career, hopefully a lifelong career. We've successfully completed a legal internship this past year, a psychological fellowship and ending a social work internship program. We have a lot of great things. We have a nurse practitioner residency program that will graduate five residents this month, and we'll bring on six new residents in June."

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who appeared at the groundbreaking ceremony, said it's imperative to capture the attention of those who want to grow up and care for other people through outreach and education.

"We struggle, and it's one of the greatest challenges we have in rural communities across Kansas is to get the necessary health care providers in our town, to attract a physician, to attract a specialist, to attract a dentist," Moran said. "They're scarce. This is a major step in that direction."

The building is named after Southeast Kansas native John Parolo, who through the John U. Parolo Education Trust made the lead gift of $1.5 million for the construction of the health education center.

Jason Wesco, executive vice president of CHC, said they're not only honoring the future with the facility but also the past.

Parolo served in the U.S. Army during World War II from 1942 to 1945. He worked for Boeing in Wichita for 35 years until his retirement in 1989. He died in 2019.

"What so many knew about John was his kindness, his frugality, his faith, his love of country, his belief in family, his appreciation of history and his deep, abiding passion for Southeast Kansas," Wesco said. "What few knew was that John had invested very well, largely in Boeing, and he had amassed a significant personal fortune that he left in trust for the purpose of engineering and health care education for the children of the place he calls home — Southeast Kansas."

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