Walking into the Family Treehouse in Imperial, you’re overwhelmed by bright, stimulating colors throughout the facility. Cartoon murals embrace the wall with paintings of children, trees, flowers and exotic animals. Parents run around with their laughing children playing tag. Some are crawling through an elaborate jungle gym that almost reaches the ceiling, while others are engrossed in reading children’s books. Active interaction like this is an important family value. Values are something Rosie Nava-Bermudez, a long-time advocate for family health and awareness, has always endorsed; the power of family.
Just to the right, passed the 8,000 square-foot play area, through a hallway, Nava-Bermudez is sitting at her computer planning the next Treehouse social event, like “Family Disco Night” or a trip in the Family Treehouse Train. Beside her sits her son Rivelino, a vibrant 8-year-old boy who loves video games. “I love to incorporate my family with the work I love to do,” she says. “It’s healthy for them and me.” As founder of the Family Treehouse, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving family functioning, pediatric development, and the health of the community, Nava-Bermudez fully knows the importance of hard work that surrounds a family, something she learned at a young age.
Born in Brawley, Nava-Bermudez was raised in Niland, Calif., a small town on the north end of the Imperial Valley. She had humble beginnings; her parents Eli Nava and Sharon Cox entered parenthood as field workers picking grapes in Mecca, even during the summers when temperatures are exceedingly high. During that time some things weren’t as accepted, and a bi-racial relationship was one of them. “It was hard at school. I often had trouble communicating with my Hispanic classmates because I didn’t speak Spanish, while my Anglo classmates made fun of me because I was Hispanic,” remembers Nava-Bermudez. “I thought it was because I was a tomboy.” Not bowing to the pressures of social segregation, Nava-Bermudez went on to make friends and has fond memories of growing up in Niland, including going to the annual Tomato Festival with her family.
Eventually, her father was able to attend Imperial Valley College and study psychology. He moved the family to El Centro and obtained a position at the Mental Health Department, while Nava-Bermudez’s mother stayed at home with the family. When she was just 13, her parents divorced and went their separate ways. The transition was difficult at first, especially because her mother had to work the midnight shift at a local fast food restaurant. Nava-Bermudez would come home promptly after school to take care of her three younger brothers, Eli Jr., 11, Louis, 3, and Eric, 1, just as her mother would have to leave for work. There was no time for play, no sports, no sort of after-school activities, and not even prom. Yet taking care of her brothers was still a joyous time for Nava-Bermudez, even as her mother was trying to make ends meet.
While attending Central Union High School, mentored by her biology teacher, Von Bowen, Nava-Bermudez won two internships from the USDA as an agricultural researcher at the Agriculture Research Center in Brawley. During the summer she worked with scientists soil sampling as part of her job. Working from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Brawley, Nava-Bermudez would then catch a ride from a fellow co-worker to El Centro, where she worked at a fast food restaurant on Ocotillo Dr. At the time living in downtown El Centro, she would then walk home from work at 1 a.m. “The uniforms were awful,” she remembers, “they were dark brown and polyester and didn’t breathe!”
Anticipating high school graduation Nava-Bermudez asked her mother about the possibility of going to college. Her mother replied that paying for college was a luxury that the family couldn’t afford. Fueled with determination Nava-Bermudez began to save every penny she could.
Graduating from Central Union High School in 1987, Nava-Bermudez was in the top 20 of her class of about 500 seniors. Her dream was to be doctor who prevented people from getting sick rather than treating people who are already sick. This concept stuck with Nava-Bermudez and she was later able to implement some of these ideas at the Family Treehouse facility.
Collecting her last pay check from work and adding it to the money she saved from the Agriculture Research Center internships, Nava-Bermudez bought a two-door, beige Honda Civic. She packed her little car with a bag of clothes, a shelf for her books, a portable radio, a block of cheese, a head of lettuce, and a bag of Fiesta tortillas. Having enrolled at San Diego State University, she was finally off to college, a day before classes started, not even seeing the campus yet.
In 1992, while still enrolled in college, she married her high school sweetheart, Cesar Bermudez, who was attending Grossmont College at the time. “I love him,” she says. “He’s my best friend.”
In 1993, Nava-Bermudez graduated with a bachelor’s in health science and then the following year gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Samantha. Realizing how busy and confining city living can be for a family, she and her husband made the decision to move back to the Valley where they felt there was more to offer. Her husband soon found a job at a local caterpillar dealer, and Nava-Bermudez stayed at home with Samantha. Feeling a little isolated from not working or going to school, she fell into a mild postpartum depression. She remembers wishing there was a place where she and her daughter could connect with other women and children going through similar situations. Leaving her daughter in the care of strangers, in fear she might miss something vital in her daughters early stages of development, was also a concern. “I was so fearful for my child,” she remembers. “I felt like I was abandoning her, plus all the stories from television reports (about childcare) didn’t make it easier.”
Waiting until her daughter was in kindergarten, Nava-Bermudez decided to go back to school at SDSU. At first while working full time at the Health Department in El Centro, she drove three days a week to San Diego, coming home sometimes late at night. In 2002 she graduated with a master’s in public health and became involved with a project in the Valley promoting child safety. With a little help from a grant, she would literally go from house to house giving free car seats to needy families and demonstrating the correct way to use them, sometimes loading her tiny Honda hatch back with 15 car seats.
Not forgetting the postpartum depression she went through with her first child, Nava-Bermudez formulated an idea for a facility that would deal with crucial child and parent issues. The facility would offer counseling, screening for young children who might have learning and social disabilities, a place where parents could bring their children to interact with one another, play with one another, and grow with one another.
Raising funds for the facility was not easy. After getting numerous rejections from organizations, such as Kellogg’s, Microsoft, and even Oprah Winfrey, she finally was granted enough money from the Imperial County Children and Families First Commission to open such a facility. After finding a suitable building in Imperial in what was once the Family Market, the owner of the property, with a hand shake, agreed to rent the place to her.
With help from family, friends and people who believed in what she was doing, the Family Treehouse came together, all while Nava-Bermudez was pregnant with her second child.
Her son Revi was born in February 2003, and just a few months later the Family Treehouse was in full swing, providing sanctuary and support for families and children with developmental conditions.
Local registered nurse and faculty at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus, Helina Hoyt, praises Nava-Bermudez and the Family Treehouse, “Since the beginning her family resource center has developed into a one-of-a-kind community gem. Every county needs a proactive parent like Rosie Nava-Bermudez. I have known her for several years and am amazed every time I get to visit the Family Treehouse in Imperial, Calif.”
A realization of her long-ago dream of helping people, the mission of the Family Treehouse is to assist in the development of healthy, happy families through health promotion, early childhood education and screenings.
“It’s been a long 10 years,” says Nava-Bermudez. “I couldn’t have done anything without the support and love from my family.”
Rosie Nava-Bermudez is an inspiration to woman, men, and children alike. A courageous woman whose hard work and dedication for better families will be felt throughout the Imperial Valley and beyond … forever.
“I’m always unsure of the future, but I believe it’s always going to be bright,” says Nava-Bermudez.
Rosie Nava-Bermudez: Head and Shoulders above the Rest