A swim team practices at the Richard E. Workman Sports and Wellness Complex. The new complex has impressed out-of-towners.

Ten third-year medical students from Virginia are living in the Effingham area this year, learning from doctors at St. Anthony’s Memorial Hospital.

The physicians instruct, train and supervise the students. But in a broader sense, the hosts are also shaping the perception that the out-of-state visitors have of the community.

Just as big companies across the region want to give prospective employees reason to like this community, St. Anthony’s officials recognize that recruiting young talent is key to building the future. After all, some of the hospital’s doctors are approaching retirement age. And doctors don’t grow on trees.

“We want to continue to have the very best and brightest serving the community,” said Dr. Ryan Jennings, the chief medical officer at the hospital.

“Unfortunately, our medical staff is not getting any younger. We have to think about their legacy.”

Effingham’s largest employer says that in an ideal world they could meet their needs with strictly local residents. But that isn’t always possible. Sometimes they must look outside the area and state for talented employees. In those cases, officials have to recruit out-of-towners, some of whom are from large cities.

How do you convince them that the quaint, small town of Effingham has amenities that they’d like?

Show them, recruiters say.

That’s what officials at Heartland Dental have been doing more often over the past year, according to Director of Corporate Marketing Ashley Buehnerkemper.

“We’ve been more receptive to recruiting outside Effingham, if needed,” said Buehnerkemper.

She said the company plans a whole day to show potential hires around town. The recruits go to the Effingham Performance Center and to the Richard E. Workman Sports and Wellness Complex.

The recruits buzz about the EPC. And the sports complex, which opened in February, has impressed on those tours as well.

“The first impression is, ‘I can’t believe a place like this is in Effingham,’” said Jake Junghanel, general manager of the complex.

“We’ve had people from Chicago, from New York, amazed that their community doesn’t have something like this.”

The pitch

Buehnerkempe said Heartland’s pitch to potential hires is centered around a few main points:

n Because it’s a national company, employees have the chance to travel and spend plenty of time in big cities.

n The company is flexible when considering work schedules, so employees can possibly travel home for long weekends.

n Effingham’s school systems and residents make it a great place to live.

For the most part, recruits have been charmed by Effingham.

“You have the initial shock that it’s not Chicago,” Buehnerkempe said. “But once they experience everything, it’s a no-brainer and a place where they can be successful.”

Effingham Mayor Jeff Bloemker said he knows from previous work experience that recruiting employees to a rural town can be tough. But it can be done with success.

“You lead with the quality of life issue,” he said. “There’s a lack of traffic, clean air, the best tasting water in the United States. You can walk the streets at night. Kids can play in a backyard. There are strong religious organizations and a great sense of community that you can’t put a price on.”

City officials have been trying to make it easier to market Effingham to outsiders. Bloemker said the city has been working on beefing up the shopping and dining options in town. It has also been trying to turn Effingham into a bike-friendly town and add to the TREC trail.

Tom Gardner, a retired state police officer, spent one recent afternoon at Effingham’s Community Park with his son, Jude. As the boy played, Gardner explained why he thinks this is an area people should want to live.

“Probably more than anything, it still has a small-town feel,” he said. “It’s more friendly and there’s not an overshadowing sense of fear after dark.”

Future doctors

St. Anthony’s new partnership with Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, has hospital officials giddy that they may have formed a pipeline for future doctors.

“This is a big deal,” said Jennings, the chief medical officer.

The medical students are observing procedures, interacting with patients, and even assisting under the doctors’ supervision.

“We have a lot to show them,” said Kelly Haller, a St. Anthony’s OB/GYN doctor who has volunteered as a teacher for the students. “You want to show them why you love what you do and expose them to every aspect of medicine that they might possibly be interested in.”

After the third year of medical school, students spend another year learning and interacting with the teachers, called preceptors.

en, they go through residency, which lasts a minimum of three years.

Because there isn’t a residency program in Effingham, the students will have to leave town. But Jennings said the hospital plans to stay in touch with the students and to ask them to return as physicians after residency.

Rusty Davis, one of the Liberty University medical students, said he’d consider a move back to Effingham years from now.

“If you would have asked me before coming here, I would have told you no,” Davis said. “But now, I could see myself coming back here, for sure. It’s just a great community.”

Though Davis is from Phoenix, Arizona, a city of more than 1.5 million people, he said Effingham has the amenities he’s looking for. And for everything else, a city like Champaign isn’t too far away, he said.

The hospital’s staff and the people he’s met at Effingham’s community events have made the town seem like a good fit for him.

“The people are great,” Davis said. “I haven’t met anybody yet I haven’t been able to get along with. The staff’s really helpful.”

Jennings said the hospital will offer the students financial support as an additional incentive to later return to Effingham.

“The cost of medical education is getting worse and worse and worse,” he said.

“Helping them overcome that burden is a big draw.”

Four or more years from now, Jennings sees some promising phone calls taking place with the Liberty University students.

“When that phone call comes, going, ‘Hey Rusty, you’re about done — what are your plans?’” Jennings said. “Hopefully, he goes, ‘I can’t wait to come back to Effingham. It was a great town, a great opportunity.’ That’s how I see it playing out.”

Stan Polanski can be reached at stan.polanski@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151 ext. 131.

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