Erica Barker: Behavior Consultant, Homeschool Mom, & AirBnB Property Owner, Auburn CA

"I really want to leave a legacy for my kids and the people around me to hold onto your beliefs, hold onto truth, but be kind and be hospitable to everyone. Go above and beyond, even to the point where you’re uncomfortable, to love others— [that] is really what I want to teach them; and when I’m gone, if they remember nothing else from me, I want them to know that and feel that."

Erica Barker had a rewarding career working with children as a behavior consultant for many years. She helped kids on the autism spectrum to learn new skills and gain independence. When she became a mom, she felt to use her gifts and skills to teach her own children. She's now a homeschool mom and the owner of a hip AirBnB property, Milk and Honey Cottage, creating relaxing getaway experiences for visitors to her little California town.

We sat down with Erica to find out about behavior consulting, her experiences growing up in a mixed-race family, all things homeschooling, and what it's like to run her AirBnB.

What was your family and upbringing like? Where did things start for you?

I'm originally from Fresno, California. But I only lived there till I was five or six. My dad worked in grocery at the time managing grocery stores, and his job moved us to Stockton, California. It was with both my parents, they're still married to this day. They've been married for I think 42 or 43 years. It was just me and my brother. We grew up in a Bible-believing Christian home.

It was a really unique upbringing in that we resided in Stockton, but we didn't really feel a sense of community there, our community was in Fresno. Every birthday, holiday, Christmas, Easter, we were always with our family there, and our family is quite blended... My dad's side of the family—my dad is Creole; and my mom is Black. I saw the beauty in that. Inside of the family, there are interracial marriages, and a lot of my first and second cousins were mixed race.

"So growing up, I saw every shade of Black, white.. and we didn't see race in each other; we were just family."

But then another interesting part of my growing up was that I felt like it was very compartmentalized. When I was being raised in Stockton, we attended an all Black Baptist church. My brother and I went to an all white private school. So growing up I feel like I got to experience many different cultures.

It took me a long time to find my own identity. Going to school, my brother and I were the only kids of color for a really long time. And I remember in each of those environments, trying to find my way. At the church,. I didn't quite feel Black enough. At school, I obviously wasn't white. And it was in our neighborhood that I felt the most accepted, but there was also the most diversity in my neighborhood. I've learned who I am in Christ and just who I am as a person. I'm comfortable in any environment at this point.

What was your mom's occupation?

For a while she stayed at home, then she ended up maybe by the time I was seven or eight working as a teller at a bank. And financially, there was a hard time that my parents went through. They were always so good about not really letting my brother and I feel that. I always felt that we had so much abundance in the way that they cared for us and loved us. I never felt like we were in need of anything. But there are times where, you know, the phone got cut off and a car got repossessed, and we didn't see that for what was actually happening.

We were just such a tight knit group, the four of us. And through my teenage years, some difficulties came with some of the shifts that [my parents] took at certain times. My brother and I found ourselves when we were teenagers (not when were kids) home alone a lot based on their schedules. But there was open communication constantly with my parents. Overall, it was a really blessed upbringing.

What were some of the home values or philosophies or sayings that shaped and grounded you?

So like I said before, they kept us in church, but a lot of times that doesn't stop kids from doing what they're gonna do. But my parents really instilled in my brother and I, kindness to everyone. They really pushed for that. My dad instilled a good work ethic in the both of us. And I remember a lot of natural consequences. There was a good balance of boundaries, and there was strictness. But also they wanted us to learn from natural consequences. So if a friend of mine would come home with a C on a test, they would get grounded. Whereas I would come home with a C and my parents would be like, "Well guess you didn't study hard enough. Do you want to get into college? If you really want to go, you got to study harder to get better grades."

There was always open dialogue with my parents. They wanted to make sure that they corrected mistakes from the things that their parents had made mistakes with. On my dad's side, in particular with the culture at that time, they weren't as candid with their kids; and my dad and his siblings all had to kind of figure out things on their own. They had to learn about sex through experimenting, and they had to learn about bullies [and how] all these different things work. They kind of had to figure it out the hard way. And they made a lot of mistakes along the way. So my dad's philosophy with parenting was to go opposite of that.

And my parents were an open book. They wanted us to know what darkness looks like, what sin, what evil looks like, with the foundation that we had at home. They really made a point to check in with us all the time. And now with me being a parent, as topics are appropriate, my husband and I are really open and candid with our girls making sure that they feel like they are getting knowledge and wisdom from this house before they step out into the world.

Did you go to college?

I did. I went to junior college in Stockton first, at San Joaquin Delta college. And then I transferred as a junior to UC Davis, which is where I graduated with a BA in psychology.

How did you get into behavioral consulting?

So after college, for a long time, I really wanted to work with children. I was fascinated with human behavior, child behavior, and I stumbled into working with a vendor that serviced families that had children on the autistic spectrum. I started off as a tutor for a few years where I would go from home to home, and do a two to three hour session, one on one with the child. I would teach them skills, step by step... the things that typically people take for granted like brushing your teeth. We don't really think about the process of it. If you break down brushing your teeth step by step, actually there's a lot to it. So it was challenging, [but] I loved it.

I stayed with it for a while. I got promoted from a tutor to a lead tutor. And I would go and train other tutors how to work with the children. Then I eventually went up and became a behavior consultant, and so I was the one running the programs. I would come in and meet this family and I would have tests with these kids, testing their skills and their deficits, a wide range of areas based on their age. And I would take that information, take the data that I collected, compile that into a report and present it to my supervisors. We would then take that to the regional center and present it to the team, and then try to come up with a plan that best fit that child's needs and best supported the parents. Then I would be assigned a team of tutors that my lead tutor would train, and then we would go from there.

These kids would have 30 to 40 hours per week of tutoring. It was really, really intense. It was all about early behavior intervention. Applied behavior analysis was [the] philosophy that we used. So I did tutoring all the way into being a behavioral consultant collectively for about 10 years, all the way up until my first daughter was born.

Can you describe the work-life balance? What were some of the joys? Some of the stressors?

Well, definitely the highs were the successes with the kids. When working so hard for months sometimes on a particular area of deficit where we were really pushing hard with this child, every little ounce of success, every little step in the right direction was exciting. But when I was able to mark a skill as mastered it was just such a high.

I remember feeling like there's so much purpose here. And I'm here for a reason, not only to help a child but to help these parents with their child.”

Just to be more independent in a child's life, maybe mastering that one skill wasn't the thing to make that child independent, but it was a step toward that. So that was always really exciting.

As far as the personal life/work-life balance, there were definitely times where it was difficult because, as fulfilling as that career was, it was mentally and physically draining. Going from one home to the next… and depending on the child, there were some kids that were aggressive and violent toward others or themselves. And so there were a lot of systems that had to be in place to protect the child from themselves, to protect myself from the child, to protect my tutors. But then there were other times where the next child that I would go see wouldn't have any of those behaviors at all, but lost all of their words. And so we were teaching that child how to find their words again. So, from case to case it took a lot out of me mentally and physically, but so worth it. It was so fulfilling and so rewarding.

But I knew a couple years into it that it was meant to be a season in my life and not my overall purpose, not my overall career that I would retire doing. I felt a few years into consulting that I would find so much purpose and joy as a stay-at-home homeschool mom, investing all of my time and energy and giftings into my kids. And then along the way, God opened doors for me.

What's it like being a stay-at-home mom and homeschooling your children? Can you elaborate on your experiences and the curriculum?

Yeah, I love talking about homeschooling.There are so many opportunities and so much out there for kids to still be socialized and to get such a quality education that's tailor-made for them, and not necessarily the status quo or whatever, which is what I loved about it. I would get a lot of questions, you know, from relatives, from friends in the community. How do you keep your kids socialized? How do how do you find curriculum? What does that look like? And I will tell people, it's actually the opposite of what you think.

The problem isn't, “How do I get my kids socialized? How do I pick the curriculum?” The problem is, there are too many options to choose from.

There are different ways to homeschool. I found that homeschooling through a charter was the best fit for me. It's basically through the public school system, where each family is assigned an Educational Specialists, we call them ES’s. And that credentialed teacher that you're assigned to will meet you at a coffee shop or at home. Our particular charter ES prefers to come to our home, which I'm fine with. And it's once every 20 days that this credentialed teacher that I've partnered with, comes and offers me resources, answers, questions, anything I absolutely need. So a lot of the things that kids are getting in traditional school, my kids have access to.

But the beauty of it for me is I get to choose the curriculum. It's not chosen for me. There are different philosophies of education. There's classical education, there are a lot of people that do unschooling. There are people [who do a Charlotte Mason] philosophy surrounded by nature. It's very scientific and literature based. I feel that my style is probably eclectic. I do like classical education. It's very rich with literature. It's very intense. Homeschooling is supposed to be a good fit for me and for especially for them. So we have to work well together. So I implement some classical type of teaching, but then we do some of the Charlotte Mason where we're outside nature journaling, and we're studying, you know, the changes of the plants in our yard and things like that.

I choose to mostly use a faith-based curriculum. I'm at liberty to use that as homeschool parent. That's my choice. That being said, with a public homeschool charter, I can't use my funding for that. Every family has an allowance per child per semester. So with that funding, you can use that to get your kids involved in extracurricular activities or music lessons. We use our starter funds to pay for the girls’ guitar lessons and drum lessons and different activities like that.

Also, we choose to be a part of a homeschool co-op that meets at our church once a week as a group. They have a classroom setting somewhere between 20 and 30 kids...we do our science and our history together. It's a great opportunity for the girls to be in class with their peers, have that healthy competition of you know, getting the right [answer], raising your hand, all of those things that are great for kids to learn from the school setting. So I'm glad that my kids have that opportunity as well as being at home. So some people would call that a hybrid homeschooling sort of speak where they're not just home. I consider their music teachers, also their teachers, I consider their theater teachers, [also their teachers] because they're both in theater. It's a village. I'm not the only teacher. They've got all of these other instructors... that are enriching their lives.

What are some resources for people if they're interested in homeschooling their kids?

Yeah. It's really just going on to your county educational website and kind of looking for the homeschool links. You can look to see what's the best fit for your family. California is a relatively homeschool-friendly state. So if people wanted to do it independently, they would just probably need to go to the Office of Education. I've never taken that route, but you just need to file an affidavit just to protect yourself and make sure that you're covered within the law.

Erica also manages an AirBnB property, Milk & Honey Cottage, which is a popular oasis for visitors and locals to enjoy the peace and culture of Auburn, California.

Three years ago, we opened up a part of our property as an AirBnB; We have a detached guest house on our one acre property. And a friend of mine a few years ago was trying to encourage me, saying this would be the perfect space for hospitality, because she saw hospitality giftings in me and a desire to do that.

AirBnB was a great opportunity for me to do what I'm doing with my kids because my first job, my first priority, is homeschooling them.

Erica and her husband view Milk & Honey Cottage as an opportunity to bless people in ministry. It’s both a business and a way to serve others.

What is next on the horizon?

We’ve been closed for a bit because we’ve been renovating and just making it better. So we’ll probably be opening in just a few months after we do some landscaping. And my vision for that is to make it a more upscale experience for AirBnB, but also a more relaxed experience for people that I’m allowing to use it for ministry. We don’t know what it looks like yet, but we also feel like God wants to use our home, our property for some sort of marriage ministry. I can’t define that in my own words or terms. I’m waiting on God for that. But we know it’s something He’s placed on our hearts, and I’m excited to extend our gifts of hospitality. Also, we have plans to landscape one part of our property as a community area for our neighborhood. We want to have picnic tables, have bocce ball, have horseshoes, and just let our neighbors know they don’t need our permission to come utilize that part of our property, to use it as a neighborhood park, to come and have a picnic lunch with their kids or bring a couple of friends over and play a leisurely game outside. [We want it to be] a gift to our community and a gift to our neighbors, being the hands and feet of Jesus.

What do you want to leave behind?

I really want to leave a legacy for my kids and the people around me to hold onto your beliefs, hold onto truth, but be kind and be hospitable to everyone. Go above and beyond, even to the point where you’re uncomfortable, to love others— [that] is really what I want to teach them; and when I’m gone, if they remember nothing else from me, I want them to know that and feel that.

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