With their family’s roots in Southwest Colorado dating back to the early 20th century, Karen Zink and Steve Short are walking the walk of their ancestors. Their parents, Merl and Marilyn Short, taught the sister and brother the same values that their own parents and grandparents had imparted on them: serving others is why we’re here.
“For me, from the age of nine, it was an expectation that the children in the family participate in community service,” says Zink. “Our parents were big on making sure projects got completed but not doing the work for us.”
For Zink and Short, that meant cleaning up the neighbor’s yard or the local cemetery and plugging into 4-H, where they learned the importance of discipline and teamwork.
“We were the fightingest two siblings you could imagine,” laughs Zink, who is three years older than Short. “We’d have these classic barnyard fights, tearing each other’s clothes, and throwing manure at one another. Now we are besties. I admire him to the moon and back.”
Best known for his decades-long stint as president, CEO, and popular loan officer at First National Bank in Durango, Short served as chairman of FLC’s Board of Trustees and has sat on numerous boards in the region, including the FLC Foundation. He was awarded the Durango Chamber of Commerce’s prestigious Citizen of the Year award in 2017 for his commitment to the well-being of Durango’s economy, schools, and culture.
Now, the siblings are taking their devotion to the Four Corners a step further by supporting FLC’s latest degree option: a four-year nursing program in partnership with the University of Colorado College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus. In January 2022, Zink and her husband Jerry launched the Karen Zink Family Fund for Nursing Education Leadership. The Zink’s $1 million challenge match grant will not only support the hiring of the CU Nursing Fort Lewis College Collaborative’s leader but will also help build a comprehensive network of support to maximize the success of students through access to scholarships, mentorships, peer-to-peer programs, and more. Short and his wife Jane are supporting the first student cohort, anticipated to begin in Fall 2023, with a $30,000 nursing scholarship fund.
“It’s such a worthy thing to participate in the education and training of professional nurses,” says Zink, a healthcare provider with more than 50 years of experience. “For 20-some years in a row, nurses have been the number-one trusted professionals in the country, but we’re in a serious healthcare provider shortage, and, in particular, a nursing shortage.”
This nationwide nursing shortage has an even greater impact on rural communities in the U.S., drastically limiting healthcare resources available to Native Americans, for instance. According to the National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses, only 13,000 American Indian and Alaska Native nurses serve 2.56 million American Indians and Alaska Natives across the country, something that Zink and Short hope to address with the founding of the CU/FLC nursing program.
Zink’s vision to provide quality, relevant, accessible healthcare to rural, Indigenous communities is something she learned from her mother, Marilyn, a beloved nurse at Durango’s Mercy hospital. Zink would eventually follow in her mother’s footsteps and pursue a career in nursing. Thanks to her years of experience in 4-H, she sold enough sheep to put herself through nursing school and ultimately founded Southwest Women’s Health Associates in Durango in 1989, one of only two private practices in the country owned by nurse practitioners at the time. In 2013, Zink was voted “Best Nurse” in the Durango Herald Reader’s Choice Awards. The family’s nursing tradition continues with Karen’s daughter, Heidi, who works as a certified nurse-midwife with Southwest Midwives.
Zink credits her caregiving philosophy in part to Jean Watson, a renowned American nurse theorist and former dean of CU’s College of Nursing, where Zink attended graduate school.
“[Watson] always said, ‘Do as much as you can for as many as you can for as long as you can,’” Zink recites.
In February 2021, Karen was on the frontlines of getting the first COVID-19 vaccination clinic set up in La Plata County. It took the team 18 days from concept to action. Her career isn’t the only arena where Zink makes moves.
“Jerry and I work at a high rate of speed,” says Zink. “We’ve started a few businesses, networked with other local businesses, and have been steady community servants. As for the nursing program, it’s not something that I’ve leaned back in my easy chair and thought about over the years; it’s just what’s needed right now. Jerry doesn’t value money lying around accumulating; he wants to see the benefit of investment in the community now. We want to provide opportunities for people now.”
By locating the program at FLC, CU College of Nursing and FLC are creating a pathway for rural and Indigenous students to earn their degrees and then return to their home communities with the healthcare expertise that underserved areas need.
"Two things we can achieve by having the nursing program here instead of on the Front Range are improving diversity in nursing and establishing culturally relevant caregivers for underserved populations. This partnership between FLC and CU has the creative potential to change the landscape and show how healthcare can and should look. This program will help prepare the nurses of the future."
“Two things we can achieve by having the nursing program here instead of on the Front Range are improving diversity in nursing and establishing culturally relevant caregivers for underserved populations,” says Zink. “This partnership between FLC and CU has the creative potential to change the landscape and show how healthcare can and should look. This program will help prepare the nurses of the future.”
In addition to the faculty and staff of FLC and CU, Karen points out that this program would not be possible without the tireless efforts and expertise of Elias Provencio-Vasquez, professor and dean of the University of Colorado College of Nursing at Anschutz Medical Campus. Provencio-Vasquez is the first Latino male to earn a doctorate in nursing and head a nursing school in the United States. He refers to Zink as la chispa, that is, “the spark” in English, for her loving, outspoken, action-oriented desire to see change today.
Like the Zinks and Shorts, Provencio-Vasquez is part of a growing legacy of experts and donors that are investing in this revolutionary venture for the region and the future of nursing in the Southwest U.S. and beyond. Zink wants to remind the community that this game-changing opportunity is open to anyone to join.
“It’s been the right people in the right places at the right time,” she says. “The stars have truly aligned. It’s been a lot of hard work, and we’re using the gifts we’ve been given.”
In a celebration on Zoom, leadership from CU and FLC applauded the Zinks and Shorts.
“There is a great need for nursing workforce development and FLC is proud to help lead the way,” says Melissa Mount, vice president of Advancement and CEO of the FLC Foundation. “We’re thrilled to have the philanthropic support of the Zinks and Shorts to accelerate this impactful program.”