WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. — She needed someone to tell her what she already knew.

Caitlin Saylor admits her self-esteem was scraping the floor. Hers was not the storybook life. Born in South Korea and given up for adoption at five months, a family from rural Wisconsin adopted her.

The family has always been loving and supportive, she said. Nonetheless, she was a woman of color raised in an area where few people looked like she did.

She graduated from UW-La Crosse with a degree in sociology, then had the opportunity to return to South Korea and teach English to Samsung employees. But the job was not her priority.

“One of the students took the initiative to help me with my birth family search process,’’ she said. “I never would have found my family if I didn’t have the student helping me out.”

She knew beforehand that culture and religious beliefs would make the get together bittersweet.

Saylor’s mom was a teenager when she give birth to her.

“Children born outside of wedlock, no matter what the situation is, aren’t acceptable in their culture,’’ she said. “So I’m actually a huge secret. She’s remarried and if her husband had found out that I existed, he probably would divorce her. They have a patriarchal system, and the males typically get the children, all the legal rights, financial things, so …’’

She spent a couple of weekends with her mom, said thank you for giving birth to her and all the sacrifices she made, and even met two of her half-siblings. But even as she sat across from them at the table, she couldn’t tell them who she was.

Then she was told she needed to leave, and a relationship with her mother would be impossible. It was just too dangerous.

“That’s always a dream of mine,’’ she said. “Because I think the world’s getting more progressive as time goes on. So I hope … maybe I won’t get to have a relationship with my biological mother, but I hope in the future I’ll get to connect with my biological siblings.’’

Then, before she left Korea, she became pregnant. She moved back to Port Edwards with her daughter, moved in with her parents and took a low-level job with the Department of Corrections because it fit her needs.

“But then when I started working there, I just kind of took a liking to and had an aptitude for the criminal justice system,’’ she said, “and I decided I wanted to continue to learn more and advance.’’ She became a program support supervisor in a little over a year and had ideas on how to improve programs. She had something to say, but didn’t have a voice.

The chain of command system used within the DOC was part of the problem, and she knew being a woman of color also was a roadblock.

“I just had different ideas,’’ she said. “So the things that were maybe important to me and that I saw the clients needed weren’t the same goals as upper management.’’

She would leave the DOC and take a job with human services in Wood County. She also applied and was accepted at UW-Green Bay to pursue her Master of Social Work degree.

It was there that Gail Trimberger, an associate professor in the social work program, provided the words Saylor needed to hear.

“Part of what we know is we need a different lens going into the criminal justice world,’’ said Trimberger, who after seeing Saylor’s work and participation in class, asked for a meeting to tell her she should consider a leadership position. “It can’t always be about punitive; it has to come from another place or we’re never going to fix what’s wrong. So she had that, but then her personal story as well as her professional interest and ability to see difference in people of diversity.’’

When the job of Criminal Justice Coordinator for Wood County was posted, Saylor believed, and applied.

“To hear someone in a leadership position tell me, like, ‘I believe in you and I think you can do more.’ It did really inspire me,’’ Saylor said. “Just because of my situation, where becoming a single mom unexpectedly and back living in central Wisconsin, something I never wanted to do.

“It kind of broke my self-esteem for a very long time. So I really needed to hear somebody that I respected and admired tell me, ‘Hey, I believe in you and you have the ability to be a leader.’ It really gave me that push I needed.’’

And when she sat in that interview room and the panel of five older white men asked at the end if she had anything else to add, Saylor most definitely did.

“I was like, ‘I’m gonna just say this,’’’ she said. “I said, ‘You know, if you look at the state of our criminal justice system today, and what is happening in the news with the Black Lives Matter movement or things like that, I think it’s very important to have a person of color in this position. Because I’m going to be able to see the clients are people in the criminal justice system and understand their struggles more than others and fight for those efforts.’ And I said, ‘I think it would be a good move for you to consider my background when you’re hiring for this position.’’’

They considered it for only a couple of hours before calling Saylor that afternoon and offering her the job.

Today Saylor is using her voice to develop more treatment and court programs for Wood County where, she said, studies have shown their minority population is incarcerated at a higher rate than the Caucasian population. And relying on her past, she is doing so in a manner where she’s letting everyone, no matter their position, share their voice.

And it was all made possible by someone offering words Saylor needed to hear.

“I’m really happy to know that simple meeting that said, ‘We need to get out of Caitlin’s way, that’s what I think,’’’ said Trimberger. “Let her believe in herself, and get out of her way, and she’s going to do amazing things.’’


Story idea? You can reach Mike Woods at 920-246-6321 or at: michael.t.woods1@charter.com