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Walsh’s path leads from Columbia College to state house

Sara Walsh watched as her parents made things work paycheck to paycheck when she was growing up.

They never had a lot, but they had enough. They instilled a desire to strive for more in Walsh and her sisters.

“They always encouraged us to dream big,” Walsh said. “They always wanted us to do better than they did, because they were just struggling to keep us fed. My parents always taught me to work hard, and you can achieve your dreams.”

It’s a lesson Walsh held dear, from her first job frying chicken at the Moser’s grocery store in Holts Summit, Missouri, to serving as quality control inspector at the Maytag factory in Jefferson City. From earning her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from Columbia College-Jefferson City in 2005, to achieving her master’s in public affairs, with a nonprofit and public management concentration, from the University of Missouri four years later, both as a working adult.

From volunteering as secretary of the Boone County Republican Committee, to being elected a state representative from the 50th District in August.

It all hit home as she took the oath of office at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City on Sept. 13. As a child in mid-Missouri, she had pictures of Mount Rushmore, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan on her wall. She idealized the vision of America in which anybody could set a goal, work hard and achieve it.

She is living her dreams.

“(Taking my oath of office) was honestly the first time where it just felt like everything froze in time,” Walsh said. “Standing there where so many other people had been, seeing the beautiful murals, the history of the building and the great honor and privilege and responsibility of serving the people, it just all kind of felt like time stopped, just the gravity and the honor of the moment.”

Walsh was born in Torrance, Calif., but her family moved to mid-Missouri in the 1980s, when she was 7 years old. They lived in rented houses in Climax Springs, Lohman, Eldon and other areas in rural Callaway County, where the weeds were taller than her and the people acted a little differently than they did on the west coast.

“I remember a bunch of kids on the back of a pickup truck waving on this gravel road by Climax Springs,” Walsh said. “I had never seen anything like that before. I was like, ‘Dad, why are those people waving at me?’ He’s like, ‘They’re just friendly out here.’ It was a wonderful childhood. I’m so glad they made that decision, because Missouri is home. It really, truly is.”

While working at Maytag, Walsh started taking business classes at Columbia College’s Jefferson City location. She worked the midnight shift, and Columbia College’s flexible class schedules gave her the opportunity to fit work, college and home life into her busy days.

She started a Student Government Association chapter at the location and won the presidency. She helped spearhead efforts to raise money for the Red Cross shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks and oversaw location-wide efforts such as providing for teacher appreciation certificates and pencil sharpeners in every classroom. Walsh also worked as an administrative assistant at the Jefferson City location and utilized employee education grants to help pay her way through college, the same track she would later take while working and studying her way to her master’s degree at Missouri.

“One of the things I loved when I worked for Columbia College was helping people. It was so wonderful, the bonds that I made,” Walsh said. “I would tell them, ‘I’m an adult, too, working and going to college. You can do this.’ It made me feel so good to encourage them, inspire them and let them know that this was doable.”

Walsh’s first job in politics was as a legislative assistant for a state representative. She went on to work in the state auditor’s office, sandwiched between jobs at the National Newspaper Association and handling communications for the Missouri Pharmacy Association.

When she and her husband, Steve — and their dog, Wish — moved to Ashland in southern Boone County, she started looking into opportunities to run for office. She knew that her district’s representative, Caleb Jones, would have his term run out in 2018, so she began laying the groundwork to succeed him.

Jones left office to become new Governor Eric Greitens’ chief of staff in January. The Republicans nominated Walsh to run for his seat and, after a whirlwind seven-month campaign, Walsh was elected to represent the 50th District, which contains parts of Cole, Cooper, Moniteau and Boone counties.

“I’m someone who is 110 percent committed on everything that I’ve done,” Walsh said. “I’ve always been an overachiever. The ‘dream big’ part is good, but you’ve got to do the ‘work hard.’ So I’ve always focused on that part, so the dreams would come true. It’s just a good formula.”

The new legislative session begins in January. Until then, Walsh is crisscrossing the district to catch back up with constituents she met during the campaign and hear their concerns, so she can take them with her back to Jefferson City. Once the session starts, she’ll be on the budget and pensions committees, as well as a special committee on employment security.

She wants to focus her efforts on three main issues: public safety, agriculture and education. Walsh has firsthand experience with how valuing education can change people’s lives.

“It’s being able to let young folks make sure they’ve got those opportunities to be able to start exploring ideas, so they can then chart their course to success,” Walsh said. “That’s a passion of mine. What I tell people in the communities who don’t have scholarships or come from poverty, I’ll encourage them to get a job at Columbia College. Apply for a job at the University of Missouri. You can work there and get your degree.”

Walsh followed her passion all the way from mid-Missouri to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration in January. To Cleveland last summer as a Missouri delegate to the Republican National Convention, which she calls “a Disneyland for political geeks.”

“There were just (famous) people walking by like it’s nothing. Like, ‘Wow, you don’t see them at Walmart,’” Walsh said. “It was pretty cool, a little Missouri girl going and seeing these national figures. It was quite an honor.”

She followed her passion all the way from Columbia College to the state house.

“Public service is something where it’s government of, by and for the people,” Walsh said. “I serve them. They’re my boss. I’m not the special one.”

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