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3rd Merced County Parent Institute Conference draws hundreds

Accomplishments start with dreams, and dreams start with inspiration. When it comes to inspiring children to dream big, it all starts with parents.

That was the message heard by more than 500 people who attended the third annual Merced County Parent Institute Conference, a turnout that helped make Saturday’s event the most successful yet in its three-year history.

The free event, organized by the Merced County Office of Education, the Merced Union High School District and the state Child Care and Development Program, featured workshops for parents, guardians and others concerned about the future of the community’s youth, said Rosa Barragan, the education office program manager who co-chaired the conference.

“It was great,” Barragan said. “The purpose of the conference is to inspire parents and to help them understand that just believing in their children is huge. Everyone needs someone to believe in them. That’s what makes the difference.”

Nearly 90 vendors representing an array of local businesses and services such as child care, health care, banking and education were on hand at Golden Valley High School to provide information to attendees. Local law enforcement offices and representatives of UC Merced were among the participants.

Attendees heard keynote addresses from Elizabeth Diaz, head of the Fresno County public defender’s office, as well as from former members of the McFarland High School cross country team – Coach Jim White and two of his runners, brothers Danny and David Diaz – whose unlikely story of athletic and personal success was captured in the 2015 Disney film “McFarland, USA.”

It’s important for parents to understand their children can attend a four-year university even if they think they can’t afford it.

Rosa Barragan, co-chair, Merced County Parent Institute Conference

Elizabeth Diaz told a “powerful story” of pursuing her advanced degree despite coming from a family with a limited educational history, Barragan said.

The Diaz brothers, likewise, described their childhoods, growing up in a strict family in their southern San Joaquin Valley town. Their parents pushed all seven of the family’s children to work hard toward advanced educations even though they themselves had not done so, Barragan said.

Danny Diaz said his parents encouraged the family to “dream big” and, indeed, each of the seven children went on to earn at least a bachelor’s degree.

The remarks by the Diaz brothers and White drew those in the audience to their feet, Barragan said.

Danny Diaz said his parents encouraged the family to “dream big.”

Such tales of inspiration are key for many families in Merced County, where the idea of sending children to college may seem beyond reach, Barragan said.

“For our county, we have a lot of families whose children have never attended college,” she said. “It’s important for parents to understand their children can attend a four-year university even if they think they can’t afford it. There are programs to help; there are scholarships and financial aid.”

The idea for the Merced County conference came several years ago when Barragan and Sol Rivas, of the county’s Head Start office, used to be part of a local group that would travel to Ontario for a similar event.

“We thought, why can’t we do something like this for Merced? Why do we have to go to Ontario?” Barragan recalled.

The feedback from parents ... was ‘Oh my goodness! We’d heard about it but didn’t realize how big it had become.’

Rosa Barragan, co-chair, Merced County Parent Institute Conference

The idea found support from Constantino Aguilar, then principal at Golden Valley High School, and others in the county Office of Education.

Over the past three years, the event has grown remarkably with help from dozens of volunteers, including students from Golden Valley’s culinary class who worked long hours to provide free breakfasts and lunches for the conference-goers. Child care experts also trained teams to provide free care for more than 100 children during the event.

The caregivers took advantage of Saturday’s springlike weather to have the children doing Zumba outdoors as well as having fun with other activities such as decorating T-shirts, Barragan said.

Many parents attending the event, including a busload of more than 50 Livingston families, said they were surprised to see how large it has become.

“The feedback from parents who were there for the first time was, ‘Oh my goodness! We’d heard about it but didn’t realize how big it had become,’ ” Barragan said.

The success of the event, she said, seemed to parallel the message delivered by White: “If you stay focused, you’ll get where you want to be.”

Organizers hope to continuing building and make next year’s event at least as successful. In the meantime, the county is registering parents who wish to be part of a 20-week civic engagement workshop that will begin in April. The Parent Leadership Institute is accepting sign-ups for weekly workshops in English and Spanish. Those who wish to register may call Rosa Barragan or Sol Rivas at 209-381-6793, ext. 6161 or 6942.

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