Rosa Barragan asks every child she meets the same question.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
For the 37-year-old Merced County Office of Education supervisor and mother of three, no other question breaks the ice better.
“It’s really one of the most important questions, one the most important ideas we can all help foster in the children of our community,” Barragan explained.
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A lifetime of trying to answer the question herself helped pull her out of poverty, propelled her through college and into her position as head of the education office’s Child Care Resource and Referral Department.
Barragan and her co-workers help educate Merced County families and child-care workers about the types of services and programs available for children.
“Early childhood development is the key to success in life; and every parent wants to help, they want to be there for their children, but a lot don’t know how to do it exactly,” she said. “They haven’t learned yet what they can do and how they can work with the schools to help their children succeed.”
For nine years, Barragan has helped child-care providers establish their businesses in Merced County and helped develop weekly child development training sessions.
Her group’s latest pilot project, the Parent Leadership Training Institute, aims to give parents of underserved children more tools to help their children. Parents learn a variety of skills, from understanding when a child has special learning needs to how to rally support for healthier lunches at school.
Barragan’s commitment to children has impressed others who are involved in community projects and activities.
“She is committed, focused and gifted in her ability to inspire others to dream big,” said Irene De La Cruz, who stays busy volunteering in Planada. “She brings energy and vision to the lives of children and their families.”
Barragan discovered her passion for helping children and their parents from her mother, Elvia.
“She was always encouraging me, saying things like ‘Wouldn’t it be nice for you to work in an office; wouldn’t you like that?’” Barragan said.
“I think for people who grew up rich or middle class, maybe they wouldn’t understand what a good goal that was, but for us, working hard, going to college, these things were what I just had to do,” Barragan said. “There was never a question.”
Barragan’s father died in a horseback-riding accident when she was just 3 years old. As the oldest of four children for a widowed single mother, graduating college wasn’t the easiest goal.
“I had to help her raise my sister and brothers because my mom worked three jobs,” she said.
She watched her mother go to work at 3 a.m. to pick vegetables and fruit. During summers, she went with her. “Then she would sell burritos and work other places; she worked three jobs to make ends meet for us,” Barragan said.
Barragan worked her way through junior college and transferred to California State University, Stanislaus. She got a degree in business, but not before taking time off to get married and have her first child.
“I took the 10-year plan, but I got through it and succeeded,” she said.
She said she always shared her mother’s values of hard work, persistence and high academic standards.
“I always believed I could do it because my mother believed I could do it,” Barragan said. “We were not rich, but I was fortunate because I had a strong family of aunts and uncles and grandparents who all wanted to see us succeed.”
Those values and a faith in a family-like community are what she teaches her own children and the parents with whom she works so closely.
“There’s so much poverty in Merced County and so many children that don’t have a lot of advantages,” she said. “But Merced does have a lot to offer if you know how to get your children the help, if you’re willing to work hard.
“It’s what we all want,” she said, “our schools to succeed, our community to succeed and our children to pull out of poverty.”