MANCHESTER, N.H. -- When Mary Gelinas cruises the halls of the assisted living apartment complex on her afternoon rounds, few residents greet her by name.
Instead, it's ''Honey!'' or ''Sweet-heart!''
Even the one who calls her ''a holy terror'' grumbles it with affection.
''She's a devil on wheels. Put that in your book,'' the woman says as Gelinas nudges her back to her room to take her medication.
In New Hampshire and nationwide, low pay and high turnover continue to aggravate a critical shortage of workers to care for the elderly. But thanks to an innovative project, residents of the Meetinghouse at Riverfront can count on Gelinas to help them hook up their oxygen tanks, rub lotion on their dry skin or make sure they get to meals and bingo on time.
And Gelinas, for the first time in her life, can count on a career.
The 39-year-old certified nurse's aid is in line to become part-owner of Quality Care Partners, the staffing agency that trained her and still employs her. She already serves on its board of directors.
''It's not like other agencies, where you're just another employee. They're very concerned about the workers,'' said Gelinas. ''If you own a part of it, you're going to be a good worker. This is everyone's company.''
Once a welder, Gelinas switched to part-time jobs -- lunch lady, janitor -- while her three children were younger. But as they grew up, money grew tight.
In 1999, she signed up for a free training course offered by Quality Care, a fledging agency created by three nonprofit groups to address two problems: a growing number of elderly residents and a severe shortage of workers willing to care for them.
At a time when the traditional caretaker population -- women ages 22-44 -- is decreasing, the state's elderly population is expected to grow by more than one third by 2015, according to a recent report by the New Hampshire Loan Foundation, one of Quality Care's founders. Turnover rates are as high as 60 percent at some home health care agencies and upward of 70 percent within the nursing home industry, the report said.
''The writing was on the wall. This was the right product at the right time,'' said Walter Phinney, president of Quality Care Partners.
The company accomplishes its twin missions -- improving health care and creating career opportunities for poor women -- by offering free training, wages above the industry average and a chance to own stock in the company once it turns a profit.
Starting this fall, company officials hope Quality Care will become one of only a handful of worker-owned health agencies in the country. It will offer each worker a $400 share in the company through a $25 deposit followed by weekly payroll deductions.
At the end of each year, the worker-owners and the board of directors will decide how much of their profits should go back into the company and how much to pay themselves in dividends. The dividends will be divided equally: like the workers, Phinney and other board members will get only one share.
''No one gets any more by virtue of where they are in the hierarchy,'' he said.
At the few similar cooperatives in other states, workers have earned up to $1,000 a year in dividends, he said. But the greatest benefit is providing workers with a sense of ownership and control over their futures, he said.
''It all really starts with the worker. Quality jobs equals quality care,'' Phinney said. ''If people feel well-paid, supported, involved, it only enhances the quality of care they provide.''
The agency contracts with nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospices to provide certified nurse's aides, and with visiting-nurse associations to provide home health aides.
About 70 women have completed the training. The five-week course, followed by a state certification exam, is intense, and for many women, the hurdles to success extend beyond the classroom.
The typical trainee is a single mother in her 30s who has been working multiple part-time jobs, Phinney said. A social worker at Quality Care helps many of them with transportation and child care so they can attend classes, he said.
''It's very heavy on the front end,'' he said. ''If folks go on their own to another training program, chances are there's no one to help them deal with those life issues.''
Jennifer Martin, 23, was working second shift sorting junk mail last year when she came across a newspaper ad for the program. Martin, who had studied radiology before running out of money for college, quickly signed up for the training.
Since February, she has been working at a hospice in Concord. She prepares meals for the patients, does their laundry, helps them bathe.
On her second day, a patient died, and she was put in charge of carrying out the hospice's post-mortem ritual: lighting a candle in the room and laying a flower and a special quilt on the bed.
''The hardest thing is coping with death and dying,'' she said. ''I like being there for the patient, but I do find myself having a hard time with that.''
She does not, however, have a hard time imagining her new job as the first step toward a rewarding career.
''It's a great start,'' she said.
End advance for Thursday, May 3
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