Lauri Burns knows what it's like to be a child in need of a loving, safe home—now she's providing shelter and support for dozens of children in need.
I was born in New York and grew up in a middle-class Jewish home in Long Island. Although my family looked normal on the outside, there was abuse as far back as I could remember. My understanding of God as a small child was that he was punishing me.
Just following my bat mitzvah, my mother and father split up and we were left alone with my father while my mother sought out a home for us in California. During this time, [my father's] abuse escalated, and during one event there was a witness [to the abuse]. In fear of what would happen [to him], my father hid his handgun and called the police, alleging I had taken it because I wanted to kill him. I knew if I told the police the truth, my father would never love me.
I was sent to a psychiatric center for treatment. By the time I left the hospital, my spirit was broken. For the next 10 years, my behavior turned dangerous and led me to juvenile hall, and eventually I became a ward of the court and was placed in several different group homes.
Intravenous drugs were a welcome reprieve. At the age of 18, I was released from the system and became pregnant. By the age of 19, with no where to go, a drug habit and a child, I began working the streets. On January 5, 1987, at the age of 23, I was picked up and driven to the woods and beaten brutally at the hands of two men with a gun. I was left on the canyon road for dead.
Within 24 hours, I was in a recovery home. It was in that home that I finally spoke of my [childhood] abuse. When my counselor said, "Lauri, you never have to use [drugs] again," I knew what she meant, and upon my release from the recovery home, I started a meeting at my home for single moms struggling with drug addiction.
One day, a new woman showed up. She explained that she was living in a crack house with her 12-year-old daughter. We suggested she go to a recovery home and I offered to watch her daughter. Little Shannon was delivered to my door the next day. Her mother never returned to resume custody.
I applied to be Shannon's foster parent. When they reviewed my records, they smiled and told me to reapply in seven years and suggested I drop her at the children's home. Knowing what it felt like to be left behind, I could not do that. I applied for guardianship, and I won.
By 1996, I had bought our first home. It was at this time that I received a call from a single mom who was allegedly abusing her 4-year-old son and was afraid she might kill him. She asked me for help. She came to my home, where we met with a social worker. In an attempt to help her son, I applied to be a foster mom. This time when they called me from Social Services they said: "It has been seven years. No one ever comes back when we say that. We are approving you." They made me a foster mom. The mom was provided services and regained custody of her son, and they have been good since.
It was two days before Christmas when the phone rang again. "Is this Lauri? We have you on the list as a foster mom and we have a 15-year-old girl here with no mother." They had me on a list? I could give a child a home for Christmas? God had blessed us with one extra room in our new house, so I rushed down there [to take in the girl]!
Now 11 years later, I have bought a bigger house, and my home keeps on growing. They keep on bringing me children. Each time they call, it is like Christmas! I often think of how I thought God hated me for what I did in a past life. Now, I realize that he loved me so much that he prepared me for what I would be in this life.
Through my service on the local foster care advisory board, it was brought to my attention that the majority of kids leaving the system are homeless. They leave with no money, no car, no parents, no phone: They just walk out.
I knew I needed to do something, so I started The Teen Project and began asking people to help me raise money to create resources for teens in need. Within a month, I had a small stack of donations and went to the bank to deposit $400. I was so excited that people cared!
But I never could have imagined how much they cared.
Now, one year later, we have built a strong team of caring community members and have raised more than $250,000 in donations. In just 10 months, we bought our first home for six teenage girls and we will support them emotionally and financially through college. We have an online shelter database that provides youth with immediate access to shelters and in 2009, we will start an outreach program to meet the youth on the streets and bring them resources such as bus cards, food cards and phone cards.
The Teen Project is a parent to the parentless. With God's help, we will bring them all home.
— Lauri Burns
Next: How a teenager is helping women in need gain self-confidence
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