Finding Community at the Special Education Co-op

Farmland with a snow-capped mountain in the distance at sunset - Washington, USA

At first glance, the rural hills of Washington state and southern California seem nearly a world apart. Yet, Dr. Homero Flores, a Bilingual School Psychologist for the ESD 113 Special Education Cooperative, has found an incredible amount of similarity.

Sixteen years into his work with the Co-op, he feels right at home providing bilingual services to students across the region. He has become a living embodiment of the Co-op motto: Love where you live. Love where you work.

“I never thought I’d end up in Washington state,” says Flores. “I’m just happy to be up this way.”

But how did this region remind Flores of his old home in San Diego? It’s because of the similar community he’s found up here that he wanted to give back to and because of the welcoming atmosphere the others at the Special Education Co-op provide.

Flores grew up around a large migrant population in San Diego. There was a lot of racial tension and animosity surrounding their community. 

He and the other bilingual children of migrants felt a need to help protect their parents from this tension and chose to join United Pride, a grassroots organization for the children of migrants.

Ranging from ages 16 to 20, they focused their organizing on education. Flores remembers his parents constantly reinforcing the importance of education to him and his twin brother.

“My brother and I ended up in psychology,” states Flores. “That career kind of found us. We never knew what a school psychologist was, but there was a strong need, especially in San Diego, for a Spanish-speaking psychologist.

“So, we thought, ‘What better way to serve the community than as bilingual school psychologists?’ And that’s what we did in Oceanside, California.”

The high cost of living eventually proved a bit too much to sustain as Flores and his wife were looking to start a family. It just so happened that an email arrived right around that time from the Special Education Co-op looking for two psychologists.

Flores and his brother decided to come 1200 miles north to interview for jobs in an area they’d never thought about. 

And yet, it worked out.

“The director at the time was Dr. Rebecca Turnbull, and she was great,” recalls Flores. “She made us feel right at home. Dr. Turnbull really presented the cooperative as a cohesive, very family-oriented unit. We ended up signing the contracts and we’ve been here ever since.”

That strong family feeling is still very much a factor in why Flores has spent 16 years at the Co-op. The sense of community he always wanted to give back to has also played a significant role.

The rural populations exist in very much the same spirit as the migrant population he grew up with. Spanish-speaking families need services like those he provides as they navigate the educational system.

He knows that rural areas typically work with fewer resources, but that’s something he was accustomed to growing up. He’s delighted he can provide one of those often-underrepresented services rural communities require.

“The communities that I serve now, they’re rural, and some of them have high Spanish-speaking populations,” adds Flores. “It reminds me of the community that I grew up in. I chose, because of my personal experiences, to stay in these small rural communities.

“I see my parents [in these communities] also because there’s bulb farms, egg farms, and a high population of Spanish-speaking individuals, and a high Mexican population, which is what we had in San Diego. So, it does feel like home.”

Flores finds it rewarding when students feel like they can see themselves or a family member in him. That feeling lets him know he’s serving the communities he aspired to give back to in his youth.

He hopes to be an example of a potential future for students, especially for the children of migrants. Part of that process was earning his Ph.D. just over five years ago while working for the ESD.

As the Co-op continues, the need for bilingual psychologists grows. Flores has been a critical link in their recruitment.

It’s not easy to step out of a comfort zone and move to a place where, as Flores remembers, the things you associated with it the most were Mount St. Helens erupting and Ken Griffey Jr.’s time with the Mariners. Yet, Flores is a great example of how doing just that can lead to finding out that home can be in multiple places and that you can give back to the community hundreds of miles away from where you grew up.