SMITH COLUMN: Appreciating the work of Erin Barger

Published 10:30 am Thursday, July 22, 2021

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Dr. Gary Bertsch, retired UGA professor who worked to make our world safer by reducing nuclear arsenals, sees local involvement as the key to solving society’s challenges and moving the world forward positively. “Making our communities better makes for a better world.” The following is the first of a two-part series about two individuals in Athens who are making a difference in that regard.

To appreciate the altruistic endeavor that enraptures Erin Barger, you begin with her formative years. She is a person who was born with a good heart. She is as selfless as Mother Theresa was.  She has the giving and caring gene.

When she was earning a degree in English at Western Kentucky with plans to become a schoolteacher, she became involved with a program that addressed the needs of adults with developmental disabilities. She then lent a helping hand for the resettlement of refugees in Bowling Green.

About that time, she married Brian Barger, whom she had met at a summer camp on Lake Martin, Alabama. At Western Kentucky, they both thought it would be satisfying and fulfilling to spend time in the Peace Cops. Before you could say “Big Red” the name of the popular mascot of the Hilltoppers, they were a husband-wife team settling in Zunyi, a city of five million people, not far from Tibet. (Zunyi is where Chairman Mao Zedong came to power.)

To say that they were still on their honeymoon would not be inaccurate — a reminder of what young people imbued with big heartedness and humanitarianism can do to bring about goodwill in the world. Early on, they were a curiosity functioning in the midst of a society, which had never seen a foreigner. “Everywhere you went,” she remembers, “people were staring, pointing, taking photos and wanting us to hold their babies. We learned that you never want to be famous, just too much pressure and not enough privacy.

“Our favorite times came with our work, which focused on teaching students at the college level. We were so well received by the Chinese. Many of the students came from poor, rural parts of the country. They were thrilled to be in college, highly valued education and loved having us American teachers.”

The Bargers were away from their family and friends for 27 consecutive months, but were inspired by life in the Peace Corps. They appreciated its tenets to the fullest, subordinating all negatives, hardships and inconveniences to the emotional rewards of philanthropy.

Even on the weekends, they took on additional responsibility, volunteering at an orphanage. It was not like writing a check and moving on; it was a giving of oneself for a better world.

Following the Peace Corps, the Barger’s spent time in Chapel Hill where she earned a master’s degree in social work at North Carolina while teaching special education. 

Eleven years ago, she and Brian drove into Athens and were immediately overwhelmed. “We parked in the heart of downtown and looked at each other and said, ‘This is it. This is where we belong. There is something about this place that once you fall in love with it, it is lifelong.’”  She did not know at the time what she would be doing in the community, but she knew she was going to become involved while Brian studied for a PhD.

She is the antithesis of the many who hold the view that paying their fair share of taxes is enough — that they do not need to “go above and beyond.” Erin would allow that the community’s health cannot become robust and all-encompassing without finding a way to sustain, educate and enlighten the less fortunate in our society. Her clarion call would be, in the simplest of terms, for everybody to join hands and pitch in.

The mother of sons Lazarus, eleven; Atticus, nine; and Moses, seven, she finds managing her busy home life and taking an indefatigable role toward serving the community exhilarating. 

Until recently, she has been the project manager for Envision Athens, a 20-year community and economic development plan for Athens-Clarke County. “It is a community movement by, with and for the people of Athens to help address our most pressing challenges and take hold of our most exciting opportunities to make our community the best it can be,” Erin says.

Achieving a community’s goals has its drawbacks, and she puts it in this perspective. “If you achieve your vision, then you realize maybe you did not shoot high enough. Our task as a community is to do everything we can to set aside our differences and come together — I believe our best chance of reaching our potential as a community is when we come together and share core values.”

She has enjoyed ultimate respect from the community for her work with Envision Athens and now has accepted the challenge of becoming the CEO of the Northeast Georgia Food Bank. More good news for her community. “Ganbei,” her Chinese friends would toast. Or “Cheers,” if you prefer.