December 5, 2015

I interviewed Lauri Burns, founder of TEEN PROJECT– at a benefit on December 3, 2015. I will never be the same.

Her book is PUNISHED FOR PURPOSE. (An intense read, more than once, to absorb it all)

One-hundred-and twenty women came together at an elaborate luncheon given by the Dove Canyon Women’s Golf Association at their magnificent Dove Canyon Golf Club in Southern California. The DCWGA has “adopted” TEEN PROJECT as their chosen charity for several of their past luncheons, and in continuing projects throughout the year.

Lauri Burns saves teens (they’re still children, folks) who would otherwise live out their lives as street people. She pulls them off the street (they don’t know where to go) as quickly as possible into a “safe” environment where they can be rehabilitated. The mission statement of TEEN PROJECT — To provide teens aging out of the foster care system with all of the resources and support of an intact family. To allow the greatest opportunity for a successful transition to adulthood.

Lauri Burns approached the microphone, a tall beautiful blond woman of slight figure, who, as keynoter, began to reveal a horrifying personal story. She got right to it, starting with the fact that her father was an abusive alcoholic, and her mother took pills to shut out his abuse to her and the three children. As a young girl, she had already begun falling to depths below most people’s experience and comprehension and then, after ten years, at the age of 23, finally found herself completely broken. It was then that she began to develop a belief system with which she rose to miraculous heights.

While Lauri suffered childhood beatings (e.g., hairdryer blows), and suspected her older sister was being sexually violated, she could never prove it, and the father led everyone to believe Lauri was insane for such accusations. Lauri could not bond with anyone and was a suicidal child. Her father sent her to psychiatrists who gave her drugs to calm her down. By the time she was 13, she was programmed to keep herself safe. She could tell by her father’s footsteps what kind of mood he was in. “At one point he had me committed to an asylum as depicted in the ‘Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ film. My mother discovered it and got me out of there – it wasn’t a place for children – and placed me in the foster care system, still in New York, with kids my own age. These kids became my family.”

When Lauri was 18, she was kicked out of the foster care system, over age and pregnant, and went into prostitution to support her child. She found clientele in the yellow pages.Q: What was the turning point for you?A: You mean when did I hit bottom? I was on a downward slide, from drugs to prostitution since I was 13. I learned to separate my mind from my body. What happened to my body was of no significance to me.

After years of prostitution, one day in my 23rd year, I hitchhiked a ride and two men picked me up. They drove the car into the woods, a very bad sign, where they molested me for hours, beat me, and were going to kill me. I wanted them to kill me; I begged them to kill me. I was broken down enough that I no longer wanted to survive. It was a way out for me. “Just get it over,” I screamed. But the men fought with each other, and one of the men changed his mind. They left me. An angel found me, pleaded with me, “Please let me help you.” And this time, finally, I let someone help me. He took me to the hospital. My first angel.

Lauri entered recovery and was told if she could keep clean for one year, she could get her daughter back. She moved out of the darkness, and got a job in the world of computers about which she knew nothing and failed a lot of the time. But eventually she did get her daughter back, and started small home meetings for moms with children. She applied to be a foster mom, but could only receive guardianship status due to her history. With the help of tax advice, she moved herself and daughter from an apartment into a normal 3-bedroom home. She brought into that house other abandoned teens. Her daughter grew up with 17 foster sisters. The daughter since earned a double master’s degree at the Columbia School of Social Welfare Services. Today through contributions and grants, Lauri has a six-bedroom facility. Since then, she had a warehouse remodeled to house 100 teens. Learning that 65% of children who exit foster care enter the homeless street life, Lauri rescues them.

Q: Lauri, when you approach teenagers on the street, what do you say to them?
A: I say, “I know where you are. I have been there.”

Q: Why should they believe you?
A: Abused children have learned to read people. There are triggers. They know that I am one of them.

Q: You spoke of an “angel” when you were 23 years old. This is detailed in your book Punished for Purpose. Would you care to say a few words about your angel?
A: There have been many angels in my life, angels who have volunteered so generously from all walks of life. I wouldn’t trade anything that happened to me because my experience and my angels have prepared me to help teens. I have a beautiful life.

Q: When you were a child, you believed you were paying for sins you committed in a previous life. You said God didn’t like you. You were trying to make sense of your suffering. What turned you around?
A: One day I was driving by a small establishment, a Chabad (Jewish orthodox sect), and I felt compelled to stop in. I was raised Jewish and even had a bat mitzvah. I spoke to the rabbi of that Chabad, told him my story. The rabbi said, “You have reached depths most people have not. You are in a position to know a great deal to help others. This is your mission.”

After Lauri spoke to the women at the luncheon, she introduced her personal guests: teens who are currently living productively in her habitat. Each of these girls spoke for a few minutes. It was like listening to girls at an AA or OA meeting. They were confessional, emotional, sobbing, and expressed amazement and gratefulness for all the hard work done on their behalf.I privately asked each of these gals to make statement of any kind, one statement. Phoenix is a gorgeous tall gal, of modeling beauty. “These are not my words, but they are perfect. ‘I am freeing myself from my own chains so that I can help others to free themselves from their chains.’” Ellena is a pretty gal in a flowered jacket. “I am a hopeless optimist.” She had lived on the street with her mother and when given the opportunity for Teen Project safety, she would not leave her mother. The Teen Project quickly provided a car for her mother to be safe at night. Mia, a cutely chubby gal said, “I’m one tough cookie with a heart of gold.” The tall Blue-haired gal broke down crying when she announced that she just graduated Culinary Arts school.

Today, Lauri has 30 “daughters” and the count goes higher for her “grandchildren.” She feels her life is so beautiful, so worthwhile that she would not trade places with Angelica Jolie. “I would send her back to Brad.” Lauri has moved from her childhood position of believing God was not listening to her, to any more of her lies, from not liking her, to listening to her all the time. She has ongoing chats with God and knows that nothing she could do will take God’s love away. She has God’s love, even though she didn’t have her father’s love.

She realizes that her experiences are pure gold. As the rabbi indicated. A perfect example occurred one late night when she woke up and walked down the dark hall of her house to see a teenage girl banging her head against the wall, reliving a bad experience. At that moment, Lauri was 12 years old again and new exactly what to do: not turn on the light, not talk to the girl. Just stay by her side. Then slowly, they talked about God and love, and brought on the light.

Laurie’s own therapy was all about becoming a change agent. She decided to go all the way: be a change agent for her father, as well, since he was the source of it all. She began writing her father countless letters saying that she loved him and forgave him. One day, she received a phone call from Dr. Green at a mental institution stating that her father was suicidal, in bad shape, asked for his daughter Lauri (because he had been receiving letters from her) and could be released only to her. The father wanted to talk with her. When her father took the phone, he said to her, “How dare you love me after what I’ve done to you. I don’t deserve to live.” Her father was crying. She picked up her father at the Long Beach Airport and found out that he himself had been an abused foster child. And that her kindly grandmother also had been a foster child.

Starting very small and alone, Lauri has built her Teen Project into a several-million-dollar-a-year non-profit charity. She now has a family of 100 teens. In 2016, she needs to raise $800,000. The young people come from everywhere to live in an atmosphere of love and discipline. They must attend a school (a training school, like culinary arts) attend at least two meetings a week with her, do volunteer work, work part-time, and learn everyday life skills such as how to write a check.

Today, her stunning mother, who attended the luncheon, is very proud of her. Lauri Burns is stronger than most women, more driven, with a larger-than-life heart. And she is so grateful every day for her life.


THIS ARTICLE will appear in FocusonWomenMagazine.