Abby Evard Gaff was born to be a nurse.
Whenever her focus wavered, she would pull out a photo of herself as a little girl sitting on her grandfather's lap. In it, Gaff is holding a doll and listening to its heart with a toy stethoscope.
“I always wanted to take care of people,” the 26-year-old said. “That was always the goal.”
Gaff, who lives in Kendallville, earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Saint Francis. She graduated with more than $25,000 in debt but considers herself lucky because she was hired by Parkview Health immediately after graduation and earns enough to make the $180 monthly payments.
Last year, Gaff decided she wanted to earn a master's degree in leadership and management. But she struggled with the timing. Could she afford to enroll in courses while still paying off her undergraduate degree? If not, it could be five or 10 years before she could start grad school.
“It was pretty heavy weighing on me,” she said.
That's just about the time Parkview launched its Loan Payback Program. The program gives qualifying employees up to $10,000 a year for up to three years toward existing student loan debt. The money doesn't have to be paid back as long as the recipient commits to working for Parkview for one full year after each year they receive money.
“You can't just take the money and run,” Parkview spokeswoman Tami Brigle said.
Gaff, who is now a nurse leader at Parkview Noble Hospital, immediately responded to the announcement email and requested more information. To qualify, employees must work at least 24 hours a week for at least six continuous months in a qualifying position. Those include inpatient, bedside registered nurses, surgical technologists and select lab science positions.
“So far, more than 500 co-workers have taken advantage of this new benefit,” Brigle said in an email about the program.
Gaff qualified on all counts.
“I think the application was (turned) in that day,” she said.
Gaff received that first year's lump sum – minus taxes – and used it toward the principal on her student debt. She continues to make monthly payments on the loan using her income.
“The sooner I can get it wiped clean, the better,” she said.
Gaff plans to start classes at Western Governor's University in June. Although most people finish the online course work in 11/2 to 2 years, her goal is to complete a master's degree in one year while working three 12- to 13-hour shifts a week.
“I'm pretty excited about it,” she said.
Assuming Gaff gets good grades, Parkview's Tuition Assistance Program will pay $4,000 toward the costs incurred over each 12 months. The benefit, she said, will pay for “quite the majority” of the degree's cost.
“With these two programs,” Gaff said, “there's absolutely no way I should not be going back to achieve my dreams.”