MILTON — As the Santa Rosa County School District Director of Federal Programs and President of the nonprofit Bridges out of Poverty Santa Rosa, Karen Barber has spent the last 31 years seeking to improve the lives of at-risk children and their families.

“It’s what I consider my vocation,” she said.

Barber grew up in St. John, Ind., and received her bachelor’s degree in special education and master’s degree in education administration from Indiana State University and Eastern Illinois University, respectively. After moving to Florida, she earned her doctorate in curriculum instruction in 2001 from the University of West Florida.

Barber describes her position as ever-changing.

“It started as writing our grants for federal funding, mainly the Title 1 Part A grant for disadvantaged children and youth … also writing and implementing homeless education programs and grants and services," she said.

When the school district implemented the Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math program, her job shifted again.

“STEAM isn’t just about student achievement but in my mind it’s about ending homelessness and poverty, a means to which our kids can be self-sufficient and have meaningful, well-paying careers," she said.

With Bridges out of Poverty, Barber is able to work with a whole family in overcoming poverty. Her inspiration to do so comes from her own upbringing.

“I’m the oldest of six," she said. "My dad worked at a steel mill and my mother was a nurse. We were a foster family. I had five brothers and sisters and foster children in the home as well.”

Barber’s mother helped others as a nurse, worked through the church when she retired, and visited nursing homes to help after she developed Parkinson’s disease.

Barber’s sister, Mary, had a disability and Barber’s parents eventually adopted her.

“She experiences a lot of barriers," Barber said. "She inspired me to work with people that have special needs or limited resources to be compassionate and respectful and be as self-sufficient and successful as possible.”

Barber doesn’t have political aspirations for herself.

“I love my current role so much… to analyze the needs of students and families and to be creative in solving problems in meeting needs…" she said. "I really believe what I find important in supporting citizens surpasses and transcends politics...Where I am, I can be very non-partisan and focus on people.”

However, there is one role she said she would take on: the Secretary of Education for the United States. Some leaders at the state and federal levels see public education as a failure, though that view isn't based on Santa Rosa School District or other high-performing districts, she said.

“Anyone in a leadership role in education needs to find the successful public school districts, identify the practices and strategies that positively prepare our students to be successful in life," she said, "and then duplicate those practices and strategies at the schools in need of improvement.”

Outside of her work, Barber keeps up a steady gym regiment.

“My mom passed away in June," she said. "I watched the physical toll (Parkinson’s) took on her body. I want to make sure I’m healthy and independent as long as possible.”

She also has a background in theatre from her college days.

“I haven’t been able to do a lot of that lately, (but) it’s a big interest I have.”