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Regina Sutton: from the cafeteria to the classroom

This article appeared in the Daily Independent on October 14, 2016, by Mike James

CATLETTSBURG— Regina Sutton was a struggling single mother with three growing boys, a grueling job as a high school cook and no prospects for anything better in the future.

So she intentionally made her life even harder by enrolling in college, where she slogged her way to an education degree taking night classes and later commuting to Morehead to complete her studies.

Now she works at Catlettsburg Elementary School, where she is no longer a cook, but a special education teacher. It is another hard job but one she loves — although there is a piece of her heart that will always remain in the kitchen with the people she calls the most undervalued workers in any school district.

Sutton, 61, took the big step in 1992. Divorced, with sons in elementary, middle and high school, she took the cooking job at Greenup County High School and soon realized it was the hardest job she’d ever undertaken.

“I don’t think people realize just how hard it is being a school cook. The food is heavy. The pans are heavy. It’s hard work,” she said.

She had been a stay at home mother, having married straight out of high school. She had loved school and graduated seventh in her class, but never attended college or even taken ACT and SAT tests. She volunteered in her sons’ schools.

Two years into her cooking job she enrolled at Ashland Community College; by then she knew she needed a job that would better support her children. She also had felt the powerful allure children have for natural-born caregivers.

“As kids came through the lunch line, especially the FMD (funtional mental disability) kids, you just fell in love with them and you think, that’s my calling. That’s what I want to do,” she said.

College took her about six years and she graduated in 2001 at the age of 46. She was the first college graduate in her family.

Her son, Aaron, graduated a year later.

During college she held down a student job and worked weekends at the BP station in Russell. “Every day of my life was work or school,” she said.

“I know what a struggle it was for her,” said Carla Malone, who is the district’s special education director and who took classes with Sutton at ACC. “As a single mom, she worked really hard to get where she is at.”

Sutton’s first teaching position was at the former Hatcher Elementary and it was the best experience of her life. “That place got me ready for Catlettsburg. It was a family. Everybody treated each other as family. Wonderful people, wonderful kids. I could identify with them,” she said.

To this day, she feels an affinity for the kitchen staff and doesn’t like to hear anyone complain about cafeteria food. “Not that they need defending, but I try to explain the hard work involved,” she said.

Also, her two sisters are school cooks, Tammy Justice at Argillite Elementary and Debbie Barker at Wurtland Elementary.

Her youngest son, Nathan, is principal at McKell Middle School.

“Special ed really is her calling,” Malone said. “She’s a go-getter. She always goes above and beyond.”

“Our lot in life is duty. We have duty for people. When things get hard, we have to dig a little deeper,” Sutton said.

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