Dr. Barber’s Enduring Legacy of Faith, Hope, and Love

The Jefferson Educational Society, as part of its commitment to offering informative and enriching programming to our community, hosted a presentation on Wednesday, September 28 that centered on Dr. Gertrude Barber’s life and her journey to sainthood. I had the unique pleasure of presenting on Dr. Barber’s enduring legacy and mission to live a life of faith, and Monsignor Thomas McSweeney went onto discuss the Cause of Dr. Barber. I wanted to share with you some highlights from my speech.

Dr. Barber played many key roles in the lives of so many people during her life. She was a sister, teacher, psychologist, advocate, visionary, champion, and of course my aunt. It was on Erie’s east bayfront that Dr. Barber was born in 1911 and raised along eight siblings. She sadly lost her father in 1918 due to the flu epidemic at that time. She attended St. Anne’s elementary and transferred to Villa Maria Academy at the recommendations of the Catholic Sisters. She went on to Villa Maria High School and Edinboro Normal School and graduated as a teacher.

As a new teacher in 1933, she had a deep desire to be a missionary. The Erie School District superintendent counseled her that she did not have to go to a foreign land to make an impact.  Her mission could be to work with children with disabilities, right here in Erie.

Her first assignment was working with children with mild disabilities at Wayne School. These children were able to attend school because they were deemed able to learn.  However, many, many more children could not.  For them, their future was to stay at home or be sent away to a state institution.  

Her role evolved as she furthered her education and become a school psychologist. She began talking to parents, telling them it was so important for their child to go to school.  She organized the first parent group in 1950 and as word spread, more and more parents started to attend meetings and began to believe that their child should go to school. 

In a remarkably brief period, Dr. Barber opened the first class in a room at the YWCA in April of 1952. In 1958, Dr. Barber was able to expand programming into the former Lakeview Hospital where she leased the property from the Erie City Council for a dollar a year.

Dr. Barber was invited in 1960 to serve as one of the 25 delegates nationwide on President Kennedy’s taskforce that would bring to the forefront of the nation the needs of persons with developmental disabilities.

 It was in the early ’60s that Dr. Barber’s advocacy for programs for children with significant disabilities resulted in the designation of Approved Private Schools in Pennsylvania to educate those children whose needs could not be met in the public schools.

Dr. Barber continued her involvement on various statewide advisory boards and led the charge to return people from the institution to their home communities.  This resulted in the enactment of legislation which began the deinstitutionalization movement in Pennsylvania in the ’70s. 

The ’80s and ’90s were a period of rapid growth. This included the expansion of satellite sites in Girard and Corry, the development of numerous programs such as Happy Hearts Child Care, Supportive Employment to help adults with disabilities find jobs in their communities, the opening of group homes and day programs in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It was during this time that I, along with my brother Dr. Joe Barber, worked with Dr. Barber to address the needs of an increasing number of children being diagnosed with autism. She agreed that we wanted to provide the best programs for children with autism, and she would support whatever we needed.

As the reputation of the Barber Center spread both nationally and internationally, many educators, psychologists, advocates, and leaders came knocking on our doors to learn more about what we do and how we do it.

One of the foremost was Dr. George who came to us from India and spent three summers with us. He returned to India and began a program modeled after the Barber Center. Others came from Peru, Ireland, China, and Thailand.

In 2000, Dr. Barber passed away, but her legacy continues under the leadership of John Barber through the work of family, staff, friends, and supporters. The changes we see today are certainly a result of Dr. Barber’s influence and engagement with political and religious leaders.

This year we humbly acknowledge and celebrate the 70th anniversary of Dr. Barber’s establishment of the first class offered to children whose talents and abilities were overlooked by society. They are now accepted and have every opportunity to fulfill their dreams. I hope Gertrude’s story inspires each of us to reach even higher to achieve our dreams.

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