As need for healthcare workers reaches 'crisis,' Community Health Center says it now has funding to break ground on new education center.

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Attracting healthcare workers to rural areas like southeast Kansas has been an issue hospitals have faced for years, but as baby-boomer-age physicians reach retirement, now more than ever rural areas are desperate for fresh blood in the healthcare field.  

Efforts have been made across the country to address the issue, but in southeast Kansas, the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas (CHC/SEK) is taking large strides to fix the problem with a major new project, the John Parolo Education Center.  

On Tuesday, Dec. 22, President and CEO of CHC/SEK Krista Postai announced that CHC/SEK will finally be able to break ground on their new state-of-the-art 16,000 square foot education center on May 3, 2021, the anniversary of CHC/SEK’s opening.  

“This new center and the programs and partners that will be a part of it will help meet the health care needs of our region for generations to come,” Postai said, “and give our kids career opportunities they’ve never had before close to home.”  

According to Postai, the center will be a learning space for a myriad of healthcare professions including doctors, physician’s assistants, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, social workers and others. It will be a site for clinicals, rural medicine training and will be able to a support a number of residents in both medical and dental fields.  

“We’re going to bring everyone together into one environment so they can kind of cross pollinate — kind of like dogs and cats living together,” Postai said. “We think this is the future of healthcare, where everyone partners up and works together.” 

The center is an extension of the already existing partnership between CHC/SEK and KU Medical School, which was established with a federal grant last year to create a rural medicine residency program and is already up and running with about 130 students currently in the system across the state, according to Postai.  

“We’ve already got enough people interested,” Postai said. “It’ll be good.”  

Along with the announcement, Postai accepted a $1 million donation for the project from Freeman Medical Center President and CEO Paula Baker.  

“The Pittsburg area and the Southeast Kansas area is very near and dear to my heart,” Baker said. “We are very, very honored to be contributing to the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas’ Capital Campaign to establish the John Parolo Education Center.  We’re firmly behind CHC’s passion on this and we know what a tremendous difference this is going to make for generations to come.”  

Freeman’s donation brings the total amount raised for the project to $4.2 million. The whole thing is projected to cost $5.2 million, but Postai said they expect the last of the needed funds to come through in January.  

“We’re very close. We have a couple asks to some major foundations,” Postai said. “I do believe we will have the rest come in by the end of January, but we have enough now to build without borrowing.”  

While the donation from Freeman was much needed and very well received from CHC/SEK, Postai said the project wouldn’t be able to get off the ground without the generosity of John Ugo Parolo who, after his death in 2019, donated $1.5 million to the project.  

Parolo, born in 1924, was a resident of Croweburg, Kansas and was born to first generation Italian immigrants. After he served in WWII with the U.S. Army and received a Purple Heart for his service, Parolo returned to Kansas and worked at Boeing Company in Wichita for 35 years until he retired. Though he was frugal, Parolo apparently also invested very well — mostly in Boeing — which helped him amass a fortune of nearly $15 million, which has been turned into the John U. Parolo Education Trust.  

“John’s story is one of immigration, hard work, service to country, commitment to family, belief in community and a bright and shining vision of the future,” CHC/SEK said in a press release. “In sum, a story of hope. Something we could all use more of these days.”  

Postai said this project has been almost 17 years in the making and is something this area desperately needs to address the dwindling amount of healthcare workers.   

“Studies show that less than two percent of new medical graduates want to practice in towns below 25,000, all of southeast Kansas is [towns] below 25,000, there’s no town that big. So, recruiting health professionals to work here has become almost impossible,” Postai said. “I mean, we’re near crisis mode.”  

According to CHC/SEK, by 2025 Kansas is going to need an additional 290 primary care doctors just to meet the currents needs of the area, in addition to an unspecified number of dentists as “many of our rural counties no longer have a dentist.” 

Postai said she thinks this center could be a long-term solution to that problem. She said the hope is that by creating this center where future professionals can receive the necessary training, students will be more likely to stay in the area after they finish, put down roots and set up practices.  

“Our plan is to attract students who have a commitment to southeast Kansas, southwest Missouri,” Postai said. “Who understand what it’s like to grow up in a rural area and what folks need.”  

Postai said she also hopes this new center will attract kids from the area to stay in the area.  

“We’ve had folks come from east of the Mississippi, they last about three years, get their loans repaid and then go to the big city,” Postai said. “So, we want kids to come home and live and take care of each other and I think we’ve got them.”  

Postai is hopeful for what the future entails and said she is so thankful for the support this project has gotten.  

“I couldn’t ask for a better Christmas gift,” she said.