For Kathy Saxvold, it's all about the kids.

The 2019 Pequot Lakes Teacher of the Year knew from a young age she wanted to work with children. After growing up and graduating from high school in Lamberton in southwestern Minnesota, she chose to further her education at what was then called Brainerd Community College because the school had a child development program.

"I guess I always knew I was interested in doing something with little kids," Saxvold, an Early Childhood Special Education teacher, said while sitting in her office in her classroom at Eagle View Elementary School.

But she never imagined the growth she would see in preschool over 36 years, including the addition of a wing at Eagle View dedicated to early childhood programs.

Saxvold obtained her two-year Associate of Arts degree in childhood development and then went to St. Cloud State University.

"In my mind, I thought I'd either work at a child care center or the state hospital," Saxvold said.

She started studying special education and learned she could have a teaching career in that area of study. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in special education, and eventually her Master of Education degree from Southwest State University.

"I always enjoyed being around little children," Saxvold said. "I knew there were two passions I had: little kids, and children with special needs. I had a heart for children with special needs."

After spending a year in Iowa teaching children with disabilities, Saxvold and her husband, Steve, moved to Pequot Lakes in 1983, where Steve had grown up. Saxvold taught part time at Backus Public Schools, which had received a grant to operate an Early Childhood Family Education pilot program. The Pequot Lakes School District was just starting an ECSE program at that time, and Saxvold worked part time as the district's first ECSE teacher.

When Pequot Lakes started an ECFE program, Saxvold taught both ECSE and ECFE before eventually choosing to teach ECSE full time when the programs kept growing. She's proud to have played a part from the beginning in what she called one of the best early childhood programs around.

"It just makes me happy to work with so many amazing people," Saxvold said, stressing how important early childhood programs are for children and their families.

"Often, children with special needs have to work so much harder to fit in and be accepted by their peers," she said. "It's really important to me - my philosophy - I want all these kids to feel loved, happy and to build their self-esteem so when they go on to kindergarten they're ready and feel good about themselves."

And she has seen that happen.

"I have seen them come leaps and bounds in just two or three years," Saxvold said, citing a boy who just graduated out of special education in kindergarten, and a little girl who could only walk a short distance and now can walk the long hallway with her walker, go down stairs and ride a tricycle.

Saxvold works with children ages 3-5 and with many different kinds of disabilities. Children can qualify for ECSE services with a developmental delay, a specific diagnosis or syndrome. She sees children with mental health and social issues.

"That's my goal - to get these kids to feel good about themselves, and they do," she said, giving credit to fellow teachers and paraprofessionals. "Everybody has a role in this.

"It's just so fun to watch these kids blossom and grow and fit in," she said. "I feel blessed that I was able to get this job."

In her spare time, Saxvold enjoys reading, walking and spending time with her grandkids. Family is important. She and Steve have two daughters, Carime and Kayla, their husbands and four grandchildren. All live nearby, and two grandchildren attend school at Eagle View, so Saxvold is able to see them often.