July 27, 2014

Bookstore manager a force for foster children, education in Merced

As the Merced College Bookstore manager, Robyn Piro works to make education more affordable for students. When she’s not on campus, she works to improve the lives of foster children.

As the Merced College Bookstore manager, Robyn Piro works to make education more affordable for students. When she’s not on campus, she works to improve the lives of foster children.

Piro is an advocate for three children in Merced County’s foster care system, said Debbi Johnston, program director for the county’s Court Appointed Special Advocates.

She said the advocates are asked to visit the children at least twice a month, or what amounts to 10 to 15 hours with them. Piro does that three times over, she said. “She works tirelessly,” she said. “She is an amazing woman, and everybody loves her.”

Johnston described her as “bubbly” and a busy person who is always willing to help.

That bubbly demeanor perhaps belies some of her life experiences.

Piro, 57, is a San Diego native who came to Merced County to escape an abusive husband. She quite literally pointed at a random spot on a California map, which landed her in Atwater.

But, the challenges she faced began at age 8. One of 11 siblings, Piro was split up from her brothers and sisters when her mother committed suicide and father went to prison.

She said every year or two after that she was bounced around to a new foster home, including McLaren Hall in El Monte, an asylum-like facility that was “run like a prison.” The hall is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit.

Though she witnessed and was subject to abuse in some of those foster homes, she decided not to let the anger consume her. She was angry with her mother for ending her life, she said, but at age 23, with an assist from hours of therapy, she was able to begin to heal and forgive.

Knowing what it was like to not have a stable adult in her life during the decade in foster care, she said, drove her to be a member of CASA. The national nonprofit assists abused and neglected children.

Advocates spend time with the children, whether accompanying them to a court hearing or to an outing for ice cream.

One extra effort Piro makes is to take many photos of the children she works with. She said she doesn’t want them to look back, like she does, and have no record of their early lives.

“I’ll have something that I can give them and say, ‘Look, here you are at 7. Look, now you’re 9,’ ” she said.

She is one of about 80 advocates for the roughly 700 foster children in the county, according to CASA.

“When I do retire from Merced College, I’m probably going to donate pretty much all of my time into CASA, because it is a very worthy program,” she said.

Piro, who has worked for Merced College for 23 years, is in charge of books and supplies for the main campus, Los Banos Campus and the satellite campuses around the county.

While she’s in charge of keeping the books, Scantron forms, pens and other supplies on the shelves, she has worked to make some of the most expensive items available to students who have to watch their budgets.

Some of the rental programs used by campus bookstores are now required by law, but Piro spearheaded many of them long before that.

“She brings her passion into everything she does, especially with students,” said Joanne Schultz, Merced College vice president of administrative services. “She is always looking for creative ways to provide the least expensive avenues for students to get the tools they need to be successful on their road to educational success.”

She has implemented rental programs for graphing calculators, cameras, tablet computers and some the more expensive textbooks. Schultz said Piro has also increased the number of used books.

The bookstore on any campus is the center for educational tools and school spirit, Schultz said. Piro’s “very approachable” demeanor and desire to aid less fortunate students allows the school of more than 12,000 to “feel like home,” she said.

Piro said she was a student once who had a hard time paying for assigned reading materials, with some texts topping $200. So she’s proud to say she can offer rentals.

Managing the bookstore, Piro said, means she deals with just about every person on the campus – faculty, administrators, students and even parents.

That role is part of what makes the job so exciting and so important, and it’s something she reminds her staff to do with a positive attitude. “Somebody said, ‘No person is more important than another,’ ” she said. “I take that to heart.”

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