Former Furr’s employees of the now-vacant supermarket on Caldwell and River Road in Belen will forever remember Aug. 16, 2001. That was the day that Furr’s released all of its Belen employees after declaring bankruptcy.

For at least two of those former employees, the ending of one job led to a brighter future and more rewarding career. Leslye Najar, 49, and Bettie Shaw, 53, weathered some tough economic times during the past 12 months, but recent training resulted in careers as certified medical assistants (CMA).

Najar just started working for Dr. Martha Chipi, who runs a general medical practice in Belen. Najar was able to take a 13-week course through Pima Medical Institute in Albuquerque. Her schooling was funded through a Workforce Investment Act grant obtained through the New Mexico Department of Labor, and she later obtained a Pell Grant through Pima. All of Najar’s hard work paid off, as she graduated on the honor roll on July 19, with a 3.8 grade point average.

Now, instead of managing Furr’s deli and making sure the potato salad is fresh, Najar is taking electrocardiograms, drawing blood and taking patients’ blood pressure, to name a few of her CMA duties. She performs any duty that a physician’s assistant might, except writing prescriptions.

“I love what I’m doing,” Najar said. “If Furr’s hadn’t closed, I wouldn’t be doing this.”

While she’s happy to be in a career that she enjoys, Najar and Shaw both experienced lean times before getting there. After 13 weeks, unemployment benefits ran out.

“We sat for three weeks with no unemployment until President Bush decided to extend it,” Najar said.

Shaw, who is married, with two children and two grandchildren to support, just completed her non-paying 200-hour clinical period on Aug. 9. The road to becoming an official CMA was paved with long hours of study. Four to six hours of nightly study was a new experience for Shaw.

“Going back to school at my age was overwhelming,” Shaw said. “But you have to do it.”

Najar, a single parent with a 12-year-old son to support, used up all of her savings before getting a full-time position with Dr. Chipi.

“None of us got severance pay,” Najar said about Furr’s sudden dismissal.

“The judge said we would get something in two to three years,” said Shaw, formerly the head cashier at Furr’s.

Approximately 30 employees at the Belen Furr’s store and about another 30 from the Los Lunas Furr’s lost their jobs when Furr’s, formerly worth $92 billion, declared bankruptcy. According to Najar and Shaw, Furr’s managers were compensated.

Life for former Furr’s employees continues, though some have jobs and others do not.

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Bruce Warren