In February of 2012, Fairfax CASA welcomed Kathryn (Kitchy) Sawetz to our volunteer program. She has since dedicated eleven years of her time to the children of Fairfax County, advocating for thirteen children from six different family groups. Kitchy advocates fiercely for the children she serves and uses her knowledge and prior experience as an educator to ensure every child receives the educational support they deserve. “Kitchy’s visit reports make you feel like you attended the visits with her. She is so attune to every aspect of the children in her cases, from their developmental milestones, emotional and physical wellbeing to their education. As a former educator, Kitchy is wonderful at advocating for the educational needs of children.”, says Kitchy’s supervisor, Tara, “Kitchy is extremely kind-hearted and empathetic. She spends a great deal of time getting to know the family she is working with to understand all of the issues that brought them to the attention of the court. We are so lucky to have Kitchy as part of our CASA family.” Learn more about Kitchy and her time as a CASA below!
Are you native to Northern Virginia?
No! I’m from New Jersey but I moved to this area after school. I studied special education and continued to work in a variety of roles in education. I had experience working with kids who need extra support and also experience working with their parents, who were scared or fearful or angry in terms of their children’s needs.
What prompted you to become a CASA volunteer?
I was getting close to retirement and a friend of mine who was a school counselor at the time was talking about retiring and becoming a CASA! She explained to me what it was all about, and I thought it interesting, and so I pursued it. She did not! I was very interested in expanding my horizons in some respects and giving back to children. I always felt that all children deserve a good childhood, and I hoped I could brighten their hearts and allow them to be seen, heard, and feel safe!
What has been your most memorable experience as a CASA?
You know, that’s a hard question! I’m thinking about all the kids I’ve served and what they’ve experienced. There was one particular child that I worked with who was very parentified and she had seen a great deal. She witnessed drug activities and lived in a very poor situation. With her younger brother, she was placed in a foster home. At first, she didn’t trust the adults working her case and didn’t want others to care for her younger brother. Anyway, her foster mother would put ‘Let It Go’ from Frozen up on a big screen and sing and dance with this little girl. The foster mother built a pool for these kids, and the little girl invited me outside to show me everything she learned. It was amazing for this CASA youth to find her person, it really put a smile on my face. I was so happy to see that she found someone who really loved her and her and her brother were adopted by their foster family.
How do you connect with the children you serve?
What I really try to do specifically is get on eye level with the kids and use fun and humor. Sometimes, I allow them to initiate an activity because I find if they’re invested in it and they see that I’m invested in it, it seems they have some trust and feel more comfortable. I try to approach them when they’re ready, there’s lots of people seeing these kids; and everybody wants something from them. They want the kids to smile and jump up and down. I try to respect their space and respect that they have gone through trauma. These kids aren’t always very trusting of people because they’re scared. The other thing I like to do is interact and have good banter with their parents. This lets the child know there is respect between all of us and that creates an openness for everyone.
What are some of the challenges you face as a CASA?
At first, it was waiting for services to begin. I’ve learned that there’s a time and a place and you can’t just look at a traumatized child and say, “This kid needs therapy”. Sometimes there’s so much going on, and both children and adults need to settle themselves before they can benefit from the services. Another challenge is keeping your personal feelings in check, with the confidentiality of the work. You are seeing and hearing about things you haven’t experienced before, and you must carry that with you. Of course, I would call up Tara to help lighten the emotional load.
Do you feel you’ve made a lasting impact?
I really hope so! I think someone in their little heads and their little hearts, the children had a glimmer of and lightness. I always tell them “I’m a volunteer and I just want to make sure you’re happy and safe.”, I reiterate that over and over to them. I hope those mantras will be part of who they are and will guide them as they grow and experience life.
Do you find your CASA work rewarding?
Oh absolutely! I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t! I enjoy children and interacting with people. What the CASA office provides in terms of personnel and services is incredible. It’s also very rewarding to me to see how much investment there is in children’s safety and helping children get through difficult periods.
Is there anything about being a CASA that surprised you?
I don’t really think so! You know, to me, kids are kids. When I interact with the kids, I try to find how I can make their lives a little brighter and inspire confidence and hope in them that things will work out. The ongoing surprise is always the traffic!
Outside of CASA, what hobbies or activities do you enjoy?
I like to read, and I belong to a book club which also includes food! I tutor first graders that are below grade level every week. I do A LOT of babysitting for my six grandchildren, which brings me a lot of joy and a lot of fatigue. I enjoy traveling as well. My son is involved in the special Olympics, and I go to a lot of different games. I love going to lunches with my friends and shopping for a good bargain!
What advice would you give to a new or prospective CASA?
Recognize that the children and their parents are not always initially trusting, and you have to give them space and time, you have to be patient. Always be present, interactive, and non-judgmental. Also, try to initiate activities that are appropriate for child development. Understanding developmental scales of what to expect at different ages will give you a good eye in terms of observing and interacting with the child to understand what services they may need. You have to be open to asking questions and not feel like you know everything because it’s a whole new world. Don’t feel like any question is too silly, broadening your horizons will make you a better CASA.
One more thing! It’s so important to write down, as soon as possible, the information on visits and services provided. Keep a log of the names, titles, and phone numbers of people from different agencies because when those reports come through, if you don’t have the right information written down it can be hard to find. You need to record everything in a nice, organized way. If you speak to someone on the case, you know your supervisor is going to say, “What was their title and their name?”.
You really have to remain non-judgmental. As you get immersed in the situation, you understand that these adults have gone through tremendous amounts of trauma themselves. They often have limited coping skills. These people are trying to go to their services, keep the house clean, provide for their kids, and have people coming through their houses all the time, it’s a lot!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our community?
I just think CASA is a wonderful organization and I truly applaud the people who are so invested in what they do. It’s an organization that really appreciates their volunteers! It is a very friendly, warm, and embracing environment and such a wonderful place to volunteer.