A lasting legacy from one nurse to another
A former nurse pays forward the wartime education assistance she received by helping University of Colorado, Colorado Springs nursing and health sciences students earn their degrees tuition-free.
Helen Clement never thought she’d have the chance to attend college. She had watched her mother struggle to raise her and five siblings after their dad left, and college seemed too far out of reach.
But then Congress launched the United States Cadet Nurse Corps in July 1943 to help alleviate the nursing shortage during World War II.
“I enrolled, and the government paid for everything,” recalled Clement, who turned 95 in April. “The only thing we had to buy were our white hose and our white shoes. For many people like me, we knew there was no way that their family could ever provide them with further education. Even at that young age, I knew that I needed a way to make a living. That was job security.”
After Clement completed her three-year Cadet Nurse Corps Training in 1948, she worked as a registered nurse in operating rooms, emergency rooms, nursing homes, college campuses, and a high-security federal prison until she decided to take a 22-year break from health care and help her husband, Jim, who died in 2011, run general stores in Limon and Springfield, Colorado.
Once they sold the stores, she switched back from handling finances to nursing and taught courses for nursing assistants at hospitals near Limon until she was 80.
Three years later, in 2007, a new passion and nursing legacy began.
Clement met certified nursing assistant Zeljko Paunic while rehabbing from hip surgery.
Paunic had emigrated to the U.S. with his mother to escape the Bosnian War in 1998, and he had been working nights as a CNA to pay for his classes at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs’ Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences.
Clement was inspired by Paunic’s knowledge, compassion, attention to detail, and pluck.
“I was taking care of Helen at the hospital one day and got a phone call from my floor manager who said, ‘I need you to come into my office. I have something I need to talk to you about,’” Paunic said. “I had no idea what it was. She said, ‘I came into work, and there is this patient of yours who wants to help you.’
“The next day, my mother and I walked into the room we’d been told to go to. It was Helen’s room. She introduced me to her husband Jim and said she was looking for someone like me to help with nursing school since she’d been a nurse her whole life and never forgot the help she had received.
“Helen paid for the rest of my nursing school, and I’ve been a charge nurse working on the same unit of the same floor now for 15 years,” Paunic said. “Through the care I give to my patients, I’m trying to give back and share the wonderful and unexpected opportunity Miss Helen gave back to me and blessed me with.”
Creating a legacy
Clement soon realized she could help other students fulfill their dreams as well. She took her idea to Mimi Cavanaugh, her Wells Fargo Advisors financial advisor for nearly 30 years: Create a foundation to pay for college for generations of students to come.
After consulting tax, estate planning, legal, and other experts, Cavanaugh helped the Clements establish the Clement Family Foundation in 2010 to award scholarships to high school seniors pursuing medical careers at Limon High School in Limon, Colorado.
“Helen and Jim created their wealth by being very diligent and hardworking entrepreneurs,” Cavanaugh said. “I’ve been working with them for nearly 30 years and knew how much joy helping others had brought them and the role education had played in altering the path of Helen’s life.”
In 2016, the Clements started a new program, this time providing $3.4 million for scholarships at UCCS — the same school that trained Paunic.
“It’s a unique scholarship, because it’s a scholarship that was funded by a nurse for nursing students,” said Kevin Laudner, dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences. “I think a lot of recipients that receive this scholarship have a sense of pride because it came from a nurse and also a sense of accountability.”
Grace Benskin of Denver is one of five current recipients of the scholarship. The $20,000-per-year award covers her tuition, room and board, and other expenses. The first member of her family to pursue a health career, Benskin wants to be a neonatal nurse practitioner.
“I chose nursing because I wanted a patient-centered career that I could balance with my desire to be a mom, and balance my other life goals and interests,” Benskin said. “Without the scholarship, my college options would have been severely limited. A lot of my time would have been devoted to earning money to help with tuition and other expenses. Having this scholarship has really made a difference in my life.”
Cavanaugh and her team manage the assets that the Clement Family Endowed Scholarship Program administers through the UCCS awards.
“People like Helen and Jim are amazing people, and I’ve just been the connector in this desire to leave a legacy,” she said. “What they have done reminds me of what my own parents always said: If you do the right thing and take care of people and think of the welfare of others first, your life will have an easier path and make a difference.”
For Clement, it’s all about giving others the same chance to follow their dreams she once received herself.
“Our whole health system is built on nurses and their work and their productivity,” she said. “There was no way that I could have ever gone through nurses training and to college without a scholarship. It’s a good feeling for me to be able to share that.”
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