Love ... and support Teacher’s aide Christina Barfield’s dedication to helping students nets her top honor

Crystal River Primary School paraprofessional Christina Barfield loves her job — and it shows.

“I was shocked when they called my name. I didn’t know what to say,” Barfield said. “I thought they meant someone else — another Christina,” said Barfield, who on Jan. 19 was named the Citrus County School District’s 2017 School-Related Employee of the Year.

The honor came as a surprise.

“I’ve only worked four years full time and wondered why they would pick me when everyone else has more experience,” she said. “Every day I just come in to give love and support to my students, who honestly feel like they are my own.”

Barfield has been working as a paraprofessional in an Exceptional Student Education (ESE) classroom for the past four years along with ESE teacher Beth Heinz. Before working full time in the classroom, she substituted at Crystal River Primary for eight years.

The classroom has a welcoming environment for the 10 children who find support there throughout the day. Around the room signs direct students to individual stations called “Centers,” with a photo leading students throughout lessons.

“We have students ranging in kindergarten through second grade, but currently have two severely autistic fourth-graders who will be with us throughout,” she said. “It is a self-contained classroom. They stay with us all day; we go to specials, lunch and outside with them. We have students who range from most severe to those who can do things on their own.”

She said her career stems from raising two sons, one who is 19 years old and a 17-year-old who has Asperger’s syndrome.

“He is a senior in high school right now spending half the day in class and half a day at WTC,” she said, referring to Withlacoochee Technical College.

“I have 12 babies — my 10 in class and my two boys,” she said.

Every day is an opportunity to guide a child, whether through academics or life lessons; life lessons that go beyond saying please and thank you — lessons that teach essential life skills.

“My students need one-on-one, constant interaction, even going to the bathroom,” she said. “They are not potty trained. I am the go-to potty trainer, in fact I just trained a little girl who is in a wheelchair. She can crawl, so we worked for months, and when she finally made it to the bathroom she squealed! She couldn’t be happier. It is huge when we do this.”

Barfield feels her life mission is to help these students.

“It’s very challenging but very rewarding,” Barfield said. “I think, and I even feel, I’m making a difference in their lives. They have to be taught everything, from how to eat with a fork, to how to go potty, to how to brush teeth. We show them every life skill so they can do things without us.

“I just want to make them more independent. A lot of people think these kids can’t do much but they can; they can learn just like an average child, they just need more time, more love, more attention, more guiding,” she said.

However, when the day is through she feels her work is not. She thinks about the students when she is not there, and if they need something she will do everything in her power to ensure they have it.

“We come from a poor area, and we do a lot for our students; make sure they’re fed and clothed — I always buy clothes for my kids,” Barfield said. “If a student needs a warm jacket, he will have it plus a new pair of shoes and socks.”

These little actions are the reason her Crystal River Primary School peers nominated her for School-Related Employee of the Year. With that nomination, she was among school honorees district-wide represented at the Jan. 19 Citrus County Education Foundation Galaxy of Stars celebration, where she received the honor.

She admits it takes special people to nurture these students.

“This is not a job well-suited for everyone,” Barfield said. “But the best part is that I get paid for doing what I love. It’s not a job to me. When I get ready to go to work in the morning, I tell my boys I’m going to school, not work.”

Even when she has to miss school, she has to text and check on her students.

“If they don’t see my face they will be sad, and I feel the same,” Barfield said. “I treat them just like they are my own. I will take care of them until they leave me, and they will always have a piece of my heart — I will always have them.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Julie Gorham at 352-563-3236 or jgorham@chronicleonline.com.

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