Oprah's Angel Network salutes women and men from around the world who are making a difference in the lives of others. Meet five Angel Network members from very different walks of life who are becoming ambassadors of hope in their communities.

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Lauri Burns
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

Molly Malarkey
Photo: Wendy Hickok
Sixteen-year-old Molly Malarkey is getting an after-school education in the art of helping others succeed.
I've seen firsthand that the right attire and make-up can give a woman in need the boost of confidence she needs to do well at a job interview and get back on her feet.

I volunteer at Charity's Closet (located outside of Baltimore, Maryland). It's a teen-run thrift shop, and its profits go directly to Success in Style (SIS). SIS is a nonprofit organization that provides work attire and fashion advice to disadvantaged women.

One of my fellow volunteers, Jeannette, a mother of nine who still finds time to spend her Sundays volunteering at Charity's Closet, recently offered me and my friend a very special opportunity. SIS had six clients coming in from a shelter in Baltimore, and there weren't enough adult volunteers available to help them pick out job interview clothes. So, we stepped in to lend a helping hand. I got to help the women as they tried on outfits, and I got to see them smile.

We gave each woman a new wardrobe, including pantyhose, a bra, make-up and hair products, a suit, a jacket, a pair of shoes, a purse, a watch, jewelry. We also gave them a coupon for a free haircut.

The women transformed before our eyes, and I could definitely see a boost in their confidence levels. That was a gift in its own special way.

I'm glad that I was able to help change the lives of these women, and I hope that they all go on and get jobs soon so that they can be successful.

Charity's Closet has taught me that making a difference in the world can teach you a little bit about yourself and a lot about life and the importance of being there for other people in their time of need.

— Molly Malarkey

Next: A mother spreads awareness about autism

Lori and JJ Ciccarelli
Lori Ciccarelli is helping the world see the many sides of autism through the eyes of her son.
I'm a mom on a mission to support those living with autism and to help raise autism awareness.

I have a 20-year-old son, JJ, who has an autism spectrum disorder. Since intolerance has been the hardest part of our journey with his autism, we want to help educate society about the disorder. We also believe it is our responsibility to share our resources and experiences with autism and let people know what tools worked for us so that maybe those tools could help others.

To share our experiences, we produced the documentary film JJ's Journey, A Journey About Autism in 2008. I had no film experience. I had to learn film editing through a software tutorial, so it took me three years to complete this project.

The film is gaining international exposure through film festivals and my son and I making public presentations regionally to promote the film. It was nominated for the Autism Society of America Media Excellence Award 2009 and is being used in universities across the country as part of the teacher credential curriculum in addition to being shown to teachers at elementary and secondary schools as part of their in-services and trainings.

We believe we don't have to go to Third World countries to be missionaries, as we are missionaries for autism through our film and presentations. Our story is a story of hope, and we want to encourage other families of autism.

JJ is in his second year of college, earning his bachelor's degree in graphic design/illustration. The road has been full of struggles and challenges, but through perseverance, JJ has accomplished many wonderful things.

— Lori Ciccarelli

Next: How a former prostitute is helping sex workers turn their lives around

Julie Debbs
She pulled herself out of a life of prostitution and addiction. Now, Julie Debbs is helping other women do the same.
My story starts out with a past that is quite colorful. I have survived 30 years of homelessness, addiction, domestic violence, incarceration and prostitution. I remember at age 18, when I was standing in freezing cold rain in hot pants, stilettos and a halter top, trying desperately to smile and sell my body on the street corners of Sacramento. If I could only go back in time and change the things that I have done.

What I did not know at the time, during those turbulent days in my life, is that I mattered. After 30 years of prostitution, I found myself strung out on heroin, still standing on the corner of the streets of Sacramento and looking for a reason to live or a reason to die.

I managed to maintain a semblance of a relationship during my days in prostitution and addiction with a man who was 10 years older than me. His name was Larry. He was 57 and diagnosed with terminal cancer, then given a death sentence of 90 days to live. A scary space of an acknowledgment about death consumed us. We had many midnight conversations about the meaning of life and how things "could have been." When one of us shed tears, the other tasted salt. I will never forget him. He said words, unknown to me at the time, that would change my life forever.

After Larry's death, I continued to maintain my destructive lifestyle, selling my body and being treated as a commodity by customers. In the history of a prostitute, it was just another day. However, in the back of my mind and the depths of my soul, I remembered the sound of Larry's voice, a sound that transcended time and space, whispering, "If I had only changed my life when I was younger, I could have had a chance."

Those words changed my life forever. I instinctively knew it was time to get busy living or to get busy dying. I checked myself into a rehabilitation center to clean up and try to find myself. It was during this time that I realized the gravity of what I had done every time I sold my body, randomly giving away pieces of my soul.

Eventually, I managed to build up the courage to enroll in college in an attempt to discover my potential and interests. Since my enrollment, I have maintained a 3.5 GPA and received seven scholarships for my hard work and efforts to continue my education. I'm presently working on a bachelor's degree in social work and have completed the curriculum for a chemical dependency counselor certification.

My life has changed and evolved to be the life of my wildest dreams. The lost human being I once was has transformed, and I'm now an empowered woman who has used her past experiences to assist other women involved in the sex-industry trade.

Today, I am the program coordinator for a local grassroots nonprofit organization that facilitates outreach, support and education groups, HIV testing and maintains a drop-in center for women in the Oak Park area of Sacramento who are involved in the sex-industry trade.

When I reach out to these women they know I feel their pain. I have had the distinct pleasure of watching women transform and grow, eventually coming to their own and leaving prostitution. When we have success stories at the drop-in center I'm inspired to continue my life mission of helping these women seek alternative lifestyle choices—this is my destiny.

Who would have thought those many years ago as a teenage prostitute that at the seasoned age of 51 I would be an inspiration to other women involved in prostitution, to let them know that they have a voice and that their voice matters? I no longer have to subject myself to the pain of dehumanizing myself. I have turned my past around and use the things I have learned on the streets of Sacramento as a 30-year veteran prostitute to inspire hope in other women who are stuck in the business of selling their bodies. I let them know that they, too, can empower themselves and become the women they had only before dreamed of being.

— Julie Debbs

Next: How a victim is trying to end the cycle of abuse

Marala Scott
A childhood of abuse almost kept Marala Scott from a life happiness...until she discovered how to use her story to help others.
My memory of abuse began when I was 5, living in a tenement apartment in upstate New York. I have vivid recollections of my father coming home from college or work arguing, pushing and shoving my mom when they had heated arguments.

My father had a special combination of hatred and abuse for me. Throughout my childhood, my father embedded in me that because I was a woman I was no good for anything but making babies. I took 17 brutal years of his demoralizing verbal and violent physical abuse, hating myself more and more with every ridged word.

Although I left home for college at 17, I couldn't put my abusive history behind me until I had my son and then daughter. I didn't want my children to live in the cycle of abuse my older brothers, mother and even my father had.

I realized I had to forgive my father so that I could move on and begin a life that God intended for me and my children; not one my father created and controlled.

Through the process of forgiveness, I realized how many years I lost having allowed the abusive memories and flashbacks to run my life. I decided to write In Our House, Perception vs. Reality with my husband, Tre' Parker. I take the readers through my life story and the unimaginable, descriptive, abusive episodes where they could feel the beatings as if they were withstanding them. I wanted readers to understand the destruction of domestic violence and child abuse.

R&B singer Tyrese Gibson has supported my effort to share my story, and I now visit colleges regularly to help young men and women understand the signs an abuser and tell them how to get help before it's too late. Silence is deadly. We need to speak out. My mother stayed silent and didn't stand a chance at protecting herself or her children from my father's abuse. Perhaps by sharing her life story and mine we can now help save others.

— Marala Scott

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