The best investments are in our children Carmen Parra advocates for early learning

Carmen Parra |

| YOUTH BEAT

Story by Ilyne Castellanos

Photos by Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Carmen Parra is the fourth in a family of 10 children. Born and raised in rural México, her father came to the United States as a bracero. From a young age, Parra was faced with the challenge of taking on the mantle of a mother figure for her family. Parra, without a formal education but with a thirst for knowledge, helped raise her siblings, including her youngest brother and a close cousin who had developmental challenges.

Her experiences taught her that focusing on early learning is a crucial component of a child’s development, and that is precisely what she has done as a community organizer and consultant at Bright Beginnings, an initiative of First Five that has strived to give all children excellent care.

“What better investment of your life and your time?” Parra said. “Children are the ones who are going to flourish and contribute to your family, to your city, and to your county. Bright Beginnings is doing a super job … When a child is healthy in their mind and body, they have the resources needed to flourish in their circumstances.”

In the years since Parra has been involved in the education of young children, attention has increased toward early childhood education and its correlation to the healthy development of children. Last year, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his goal to provide universal early childhood education for all families in California.

In November 2019, he officially announced the details of his strategy which include the creation of a committee called the Early Childhood Policy Council. The council, composed of experts in diverse subjects, has created a comprehensive plan to make Newsom’s goal a reality. Similarly, Parra has worked to make early education accessible to Salinas’ families through Bright Beginnings.

Education for anyone should start as soon as possible, and in Bright Beginnings, Parra has worked to ensure a good education for young children and their families. Bright Beginnings aims to create a strong foundation for children by means of comprehensive early childhood education and adequate support for parents and families. By taking steps in the early phases of development, Bright Beginnings is aiming to help children by giving parents support in nurturing them to become healthy adults.

However, Parra’s work in the community does not start or stop at Bright Beginnings. Soon after arriving in the United States at 19, she began taking GED and ESL courses in Salinas. After four years at Hartnell College, with the support of her counselor and the determination to succeed, Parra continued her studies at California State University Monterey Bay, where she earned a degree in sociology and public health. From the start of her career, Parra has been passionate about her community.

“Even before I graduated, I was involved in the community. I began with an agency called the Women’s Collective, which was part of Building Healthy Communities . I started getting involved in both programs, and when the Women’s Collective stopped meeting, I stayed with BHC.” Parra went on to become a community leader for BHC and still works closely with the organization.

Parra’s interest in early childhood education is evident in her capstone project from CSUMB, which focuses on the lack of involvement of Latino parents in their children’s education. Parra, through the completion of her project, learned to appreciate the importance of her work at BHC and Bright Beginnings.

Building Healthy Communities is a program sponsored by The California Endowment. What Parra seeks through her work at Building Healthy Communities is to combat the barriers that exist against the students and parents of Salinas. “In my capstone, I investigated the barriers that we Latinos face in our children’s education. The language (English), the intimidation that language brings, the clash of cultures, the completely different education system, the lack of time, the lack of a space where we can get involved, and even the simple fact that many parents don’t know how to get involved are all obstacles for us,” Parra explained. She believes that with programs like BHC, a new culture of communication can be nurtured between parents, students and schools.

It is important to treat childhood as a treasure and to always speak frankly, and support our youth, Parra said. “May we grow strong in power, may we be strong in voice, may we be strong with our stories. In opening this communication, we bring about change,” she said.

Working with children is a labor of love, and courage is necessary when fighting for our smallest community members. Carmen Parra dedicates her time to ensure that children are ready to face the obstacles that lie ahead of them, and to ensure that they are prepared to be good, responsible, and most importantly, content people in their near futures.

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Ilyne Junuén Castellanos

About Ilyne Junuén Castellanos

Ilyne Junuén Castellanos is a graduate of Everett Alvarez High School in Salinas and is pursuing a double major in political science and Spanish at Hartnell College.