SOHOPE selected as prestigious 2021 Bellwether finalist

Question: What does Southern Oregon HOPE get when it connects underprivileged people to livable wage jobs in a worker-strapped industry?

Answer: Students equipped with poverty-ending, life-changing skills, an industry equipped with skilled workers—and recognition as a finalist in the 2021 Bellwether Award.

Southern Oregon Health Occupations Poverty Elimination, or SOHOPE, is a grant-funded program of Rogue Community College. Since 2016, it has provided low-income students in Jackson and Josephine counties with full tuition for training in an allied healthcare field, along with books, fees and supplies for the duration of their studies.

RCC has always been an advocate for students pursuing their dreams by providing a quality, affordable education, and the recognition that SOHOPE earned as a Bellwether finalist is evidence of this commitment.

The Bellwether Award is a prestigious, annual award open to all public community college programs in the United States. Each year national judges review the applications and narrow the field to 30 finalists, of which SOHOPE was one.

Although SOHOPE did not win the top award, the experience has only invigorated the program’s staff. “We have learned many things over the last five years,” said Director of Allied Health & SOHOPE Lisa Parks. “And where we’re at right now is, ‘How can we sustain the good work that we’ve been doing?’”

Answering that question involves identifying the program’s strengths. SOHOPE excels at providing the support that student recipients need to overcome obstacles. All SOHOPE students have experienced challenging situations, and most come from unconventional backgrounds.

  • Many feel intimidated by an academic or professional setting.
  • All have low-income circumstances.
  • Some have been through recovery programs.
  • Many are single parents.
  • Others dropped out of school at a young age.

But SOHOPE meets them where they are and gives them the skills and tools to overcome challenges.

“Having a case manager for a student to go to is something that we provide that’s a great wraparound service,” said Donna Plummer, a SOHOPE academic case manager. “I mean, we are there for them to come to us with academic issues, with life issues. And I think what really makes a huge difference to them is someone in their corner that can help them navigate not only college, but the obstacles that come up in life while they’re trying to be a student.”

Case in point is Allen Jackson, who recently completed a paramedicine degree. “I had some additional obstacles to overcome getting through this, and it was not an easy process,” he said. “And without SOHOPE being there to try to bring together all the different parts—financial aid, student advisor, SOHOPE’s grants—without that, I really don’t think I would have been able to get through it on my own. I probably would have given up on it.”

Students are also taking the hope they get from RCC back into their neighborhoods. “The thing that it did for me the most is, it really gave me a lot of hope for the community that I live in because it can get really hard,” said Sunshine Laczkowski, a medical assistant graduate. “When you live in poverty, or you struggle with addiction or you’re a single mom working minimum wage jobs, it can get really hopeless in your community if you haven’t had good experiences.”

Support for the students is also a community affair, extended by SOHOPE’s agency, academic and industry partners in the form of opportunities. These organizations are equally invested in making the program work—even during the pandemic.

“And yet they [partners] still step up to the plate and say, ‘We want to host your students. We want to take the time to invest in your students. We want to hopefully bring them on board as employees,’ and they want to continue that partnership,” said Julie Toledo, SOHOPE faculty coordinator. “And I think it also is indicative of the relationships that we have spent the last five years building—this idea that they are willing to make sacrifices for us and for our students.”

In the five years since the program launched, SOHOPE had been privileged to serve more than 750 participants. Of that number, 575 have completed at least one certification in healthcare, and 400 are now working in the healthcare field directly in Southern Oregon, helping to overcome the shortage of skilled workers.

As a Bellwether finalist, it’s clear SOHOPE is a winning program that’s changing student lives and the community at large.

“I don’t have words to really describe what SOHOPE has done for me and for my family,” said Brittani Workinger, a RCC medical assistant graduate. “As a single mom, it’s really important for me to be able to do these things. My daughter got to see me go through school and work hard and get somewhere. And I think that’s really important.”

Take the first step toward changing YOUR life for the better. Learn more about SOHOPE at