VFES teacher's varied life experiences help her see the world in a positive light

VFES teacher's varied life experiences help her see the world in a positive light

Every morning, Katie Sawin would wake up when the reflection of the sun bounced off the Pacific Ocean and shone into her bedroom window in Okinawa City.

“I did not need an alarm clock,” Sawin said.

Each day, Sawin and her husband would walk to their neighborhood grocery store and around the Japanese city. The walking even helped the couple become healthier.

“We walked much more and became much healthier and fit,” Sawin said. “My husband and I both lost a significant amount of weight while we lived in Okinawa.”

The couple learned the language as much as they could and explored the city as much as they could.

“I’m a girl from Finley Township — this was nuts!”, Sawin said. “I couldn’t believe this was my life.”

Long before moving to an island in the Pacific Ocean, Sawin, a Scottsburg High School graduate and a special education teacher at Vienna-Finley Elementary School, found her calling in life at home in Scott County.

“I wanted to become a teacher because I love helping people. I was interested in the field of special education, particularly, because I have a cousin with special needs who I have been very close with since he was born,” Sawin said. “I felt a connection with him as soon as I met him as a week-old baby. He is why I wanted to become a teacher because I ‘got’ him and wanted to make the world more accessible for the Gregs of the world.”

To make her passion a reality, Sawin attended to Ball State University to earn a degree in special education. However, the evening before her student-teaching interview, she had to have an emergency appendectomy.

“I had to wait a semester to student teaching. At the time I thought it was awful, but it was one of the best things to ever happen,” Sawin said.

Instead, Sawin was able to student teach with the Department of Defense Education Activity in Germany.

“When I student taught, I felt like I was where I belong — living abroad and working with students of military members and state department employees,” Sawin said. “My soul felt filled and I was me. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

After graduating college and finishing her student teaching, Sawin taught two years at Scottsburg Elementary School before selected to teach special education for third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students in Okinawa, Japan.

“I co-taught with Bobbie Heath and Debbie Owens, and it was the most fun I had ever had,” Sawin said about her time at SES. “I didn’t know I could be paid to do something I loved so much, with women I respected so much, and learn so much. They were paying me to learn!”

Within five weeks of being selected, Sawin and her husband were on a plane to Okinawa City, a city of 130,000 people. Sawin fell in love with the city, the culture, and the community.

“We had our children during this time period and became a family in Japan,” Sawin said. “I cherish this time.”

Then, life changed for the 31-year-old mother of two, wife, and special education teacher. Despite having no family history or risk factors, Sawin was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“…It came out of nowhere,” Sawin said. “The diagnosis was quite a shock…”

Because the health care Sawin needed was not available on the island, she took a plane trip back home to Indiana for treatment.

“My family physician was amazing and connected me with the Norton Cancer Institute. I went through chemotherapy, double mastectomy, and radiation as well as participated in a clinical trial,” Sawin said.

To receive the treatments, Sawin and her children, Finn and Maeve, had to stay stateside, moving in with her parents. Her husband, Jared, had to stay in Japan for seven months.

“While going through treatment, I knew it would be difficult to return to Okinawa and continue to participate in the clinical trial. I was on a ‘miracle drug’ and did not want to go without out,” Sawin said. “To participate in the study, I received infusions of the medicine every three weeks. I could not afford to fly from Okinawa every three weeks for several more months nor was quitting the study an option to me.”

With that reality, Sawin searched the Scott County School District 2 and Indiana Department of Education websites for job opportunities. A resource position was open at Johnson Elementary School, and Sawin applied for it.

“They were kind enough to schedule my interview around my mastectomy as the interview was originally scheduled for surgery day,” Sawin said. “I received a job offer the morning after my surgery — that was the greatest day! I was cancer free and had the opportunity to move home.”

While at JES, Sawin had to receive radiation treatments. During the first year at SCSD2, Sawin received immunotherapy treatments every three weeks.

“Mrs. Marcum was very gracious through that process as was Mr. Heath with the reconstruction process and the follow-up appointments when I transferred to VFES,” Sawin said. “SCSD2 people have been fantastic with my road to recovery. My co-workers at VFES help with watching Finn and bringing him home from school when I have appointments or surgery or whatever.”

After seven months, Sawin’s husband was able to return home after many hours of video conferencing, text messages and phone calls made to one another during her treatments.

“We became a family in a military community, so being apart from my husband wasn’t necessarily the end of the world. It stunk, but you gotta keep moving forward,” Sawin said. “It wasn’t easy… Our tight-knit group of friends, who became family, really helped Jared while he was in Okinawa.”

Despite all that Sawin has been through, she still keeps a positive attitude and does not let cancer define her.

“I prefer to look at it as a bad cell. […] Cancer has made me advocate for myself more, guard my heart more, and only focus on things that bring positivity and good energy into my life,” Sawin said. “I’m a tough cookie. I joke that I flew across the world to conquer cancer with one suitcase, two toddlers, and a strong spirit.”

Sawin’s affirmative attitude, strong spirit, and life experiences help her students see the world through a positive lens. At Scott County School District 2, Sawin’s story is our story. Your story matters. You matter.