Meet Jessica Barker- Program Director at Healthy Families, a program that provides resources and intensive in-home support for eligible parents in Benton and Linn Counties.
Passionate about the use of public health programming to build and sustain health equity within communities, Jessica has an undergraduate degree in Community Health Science and a Master of Public Health from Oregon State University. She is also an activist for human rights, a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) and a certified Gerontologist who is currently obtaining an MBA in Healthcare Administration. Both in her professional and personal life, she strives to become an advocate for marginalized individuals.
A lot of values that she follows in Iife have been formed by her childhood experiences- “I was raised by a single mother which really shaped my way of living. We had financial struggles but my mother did as much as she could to provide me with everything I needed. I learned from an early age how to survive and later on I realized that it helped me to work harder in order to get ahead professionally. Watching my mother being strong and independent gave me the strength I needed to persevere,” she says.
During most of her early 20s, Barker felt like a bit of a ‘lost soul’ for much of her early 20’s. Unlike others, she didn’t go to college right after college- she started working at a young age and felt stuck. For many years, she had no real direction and she did odd jobs to make enough money to survive. Eventually, her epiphany arose at 26, when she realized that this was not the life she wanted to live; she wanted more. Post this, she decided to go for further education and worked incredibly hard to pursue her passions. Her inclination towards healthy living made her choose the public health domain as her preferred choice. She went back to school later in her 20s, (which was difficult) but she just kept going. Finally after years of struggles, she was able to attain a graduate degree and at present, she continues to work on her second Masters degree.
Healthy Families is a non-profit organisation that serves families in her local community. It provides home visits to families with children between 0 to 3 years old and gives at-risk families the support they require during crucial times in their life. The vision of the initiative is that a child’s development between 0 to 3 years is imperative for them to thrive later in life- Healthy Families provides people with resources to ensure healthy development among the children. Preventative programming reduces health disparities and improves outcomes for children.
For Barker, challenges at the beginning of her career came in different forms. Despite her initial challenges of personal exploration, she found it challenging to establish her place as a leader in the community- “Many people mistake my age and think I am much younger than I am. When I would walk into the business meetings, I would be asked if my boss would be joining. I had to explain that I was in fact the Program Director and was in charge of the meeting. This challenge has reduced to some extent today but I still encounter it from time to time. Also, being a leader of a team means staying strong emotionally and mentally. When you have people relying on you and looking up to you for guidance, you have to be strong and level headed,” she says.
According to her, you don’t always get feedback or get to see how your work impacts individuals while working in the public health industry. You find fulfillment from seeing change in policies, increase in equity among a community or even data showing improvements in the community you work. This makes Barker go to work everyday, knowing that she is making a difference in lives even if she doesn’t get to hear most of the stories of people first-hand.
Talking about what kept her moving on in life, she says- “Each time life placed an obstacle in front of me, I didn’t allow myself to let it take me down. I have had many obstacles in my life, many that could have stopped my progress dead in its tracks. I often felt like giving up but I just didn’t allow myself to do so.” Barker understands that progress can feel scary but it shouldn’t let others stand in your way while you are trying to better yourself. It is okay to be selfish, she believes, and it’s okay to take opportunities even if it means giving up something else- after all, it will be all worth it in the end.