It’s not often in life that one hears of such horrific tales of abuse suffered by a child, and even more rare that a child can survive it. One amazing woman, Lauri Burns, not only survived her abuse which led to being institutionalized as a teenager, and a prostitute as a young adult, but she finally, through grace, walked out of her personal darkness and into the light. She now works to save other victims of abuse through her non-profit organization, Teen Project, and has written a book about her experiences titled Punished for Purpose available on Amazon. All proceeds from sales go to the Teen Project program.
Lauri Burns’s story is both riveting and heartbreaking, and the saddest part is, this kind of abuse is happening all over the world, every day. Burns has made it her mission in life to help save as many abused teens and women lost to the vicious cycle of beatings, violence, drugs, and prostitution as she humanly can through not only through her organization, but through the invention of a Phone App (partnering with Trumpia) created specifically to help anyone anywhere find the nearest shelter or help in a crisis situation. All they have to do is type/text SHELTER and their zip code to 99000, and every available place for help pops up on the screen with addresses and phone numbers. Burns has also created apps for SOBER and ABUSE to help the diverse needs of America’s teens.
The truest measure of our awareness of society’s ills is what we actually do about them.
She shares her experiences and her journey out of the darkness with me with complete candor.
What is your first memory of abuse? How old were you and what happened?
LB: My first memory of abuse was when I was around five. I was in the basement with my older sister. She was taking my toys. My mom got upset with her, and after trying to get her to stop with no response, she yelled for my father. He came and grabbed my arm and dragged me across the floor and up the stairs. My mother was yelling, “No! It wasn’t Lauri! But it did not matter; he continued as if he couldn’t hear her. For the next few months when he would beat me, she would try to intervene and get him to stop. Then she stopped coming.
What led to your being institutionalized and how long were you there? How did you finally get discharged from that place?
LB: My mom had moved out. Left New York due to my father’s abuse. She moved to California with her boyfriend. When she left, my father’s abuse escalated because he was very angry at her. My father’s abuse was witnessed by a friend that was visiting. My father had just come home from a trip, didn’t know I had a friend over at the house. He entered, saw me in the bathroom alone, put his briefcase down in his room and came into the bathroom and began beating me with a blow dryer. My friend came to the bathroom door; and he (father) was horrified that his abuse was witnessed. That night he tried to beat me again and I ran. I hitchhiked to a friend’s home. I was 13 at the time. I received a call in the night that the police were at my house with my dad and they were coming to get me. The call was from my aunt. After the police questioned me, they left. Later that night my aunt witnessed my father and sister sneaking the gun (he kept) out of the oven. She told me, but also warned me not to tell on my father. The next morning a different policeman returned. He was at my bedroom door, asked me to get dressed and walked me down to the car. I didn’t know if this was a rescue from my friend who saw the abuse and told her parents, or something worse. When we pulled up to the dreary grounds of Central Islip Mental Institute, and the man handed me off the guard inside, I knew it was the latter.
I am not sure how long I was in there. I would say close to 6 months. I was given drugs every day and often tied to a bed with a straight jacket in a solitary room due to my suicide attempts.
My mother called to our home regularly. My father and sister would say I was outside playing. When she hadn’t spoken to me for some time; she realized something was wrong. She called around town and our family doctor told her he was in touch with another doctor who said a kid was admitted at CI.
She didn’t have money to fly me out here (California, where Burns currently resides) so I went to a group home in Stony Brook New York while she saved money and secured a home for us.
What led you into prostitution, and how did you get out?
LB: My older sister introduced me to prostitution. She turned me on to a job she couldn’t do; hooked me up with a man that paid her for sex and arranged other sex appointments for her. When she couldn’t go, he agreed to take her little sister. She called me, didn’t say much other than she had a job, she couldn’t’ do it, it was with some rich guys and they said they would take me. I was 20, with child and on welfare. I agreed.
I was taken in the woods by two gunmen when I was 23. Their intention was to kill me. A prostitute had killed one of their friends; their plan was to get payback with any prostitute. I was working the streets of Santa Ana; they picked me up and jumped on the freeway. I knew I was in trouble. I knew not to let tricks take me on the freeway. I tried to grab the wheel. That was when I realized they were very serious. After being in the woods with them, being raped; beaten and knowing they had a gun, I screamed repeatedly that they should kill me. They beat me unconscious and left me on the side of the road.
I was picked up by a stranger and driven to a hospital. The cab from the hospital dropped me back off (at the spot) where I worked the streets. I had nowhere else to go. I was in a hospital gown and barefoot. I turned one more trick to get some heroin in my body. The next day, a man that was one of my first tricks came and took me to a detox. This man was abused as a child. He was injured in Viet Nam and is a paraplegic. He could not have sexual relations, but he paid me to hang with him. We became friends. He used to see me on the streets and get mad at me. Somehow I think through saving me, he would also save himself from his tragic childhood. Our Teen Project home is named after him.
After all the suffering you endured, what was the defining moment when you realized you had a purpose in life and would help others?
LB: When I had five teenagers living in my home, and I awoke on night to one of my girls weeping. I saw her in the bathroom outside of my room on the floor; she was banging her head on the wall and hitting herself. She was having flashbacks of the men that molested her. All of the girls came out of their rooms when they heard us. It was dark and there was a lot of crying. I was transported back to when I was 12, in the bathroom in my home in NY and suddenly I knew…. Not to turn on the light; not to talk loud; not to touch; within a few minutes we were all okay and I believe in some ways we were all further healed from the conversation and love that we encountered that night. It was a few minutes later, the girls were in the garage smoking (usually not allowed – but on this night, had to choose my battles) when the tears rolled down my face and I realized GOD loved me. He planned all of this so that I could be here, now. As a child I thought he hated me for sins committed in a past life. This was the moment I realized how much he loved me.
Out of all the children you’ve helped or fostered, which one(s) stand out most in your memory? Which one of their stories’ touched you the most? Is there one child you weren’t able to get through to or help in the time since you began advocating for abused teens?
LB: That is a difficult question, because all of the stories touch me so much. I guess the most vivid is my daughter Kay. Her father started molesting her when she was around 2. By the time she was 6, she started allowing it – knowingly – to protect her baby sister, who was at that time 4 years old. She actually ended up calling the police when she was 15 and turning her father in when he was beating her little brothers (twins). She testified against him when she was 18. He received 126 years in prison.
Yes (there is one I haven’t yet been able to get through to, fully), the first girl I took in when I was 26 was 12 years old. When she was with me, she would not listen to my rules and eventually burglarized our home (stole my rent money). I was a struggling single mom at 26. My own daughter that was seven, so it was difficult. I had her move in with another family. Over the years I have taken her back into my life several times; got her apartments, jobs, cars, helped her GOD only knows how many way… but it is never enough. Her mom died of a drug overdose when she was 18. I guess the best way to describe it is transference. She had transferred all of the anger at her mom on me. She goes years angry at me and then reaches out again. She has children that she leaves at old boyfriends’ homes and has never lived with. She knows I don’t approve. She and I are very close when we are close, and when she gets angry, it lasts years. She is one I don’t feel I have ever truly reached.
How did you begin the education that led to your current career in technology/engineering?
LB: I received a grant from the JTPA (Job Training Partnership Act) and went to school to be a Certified Novell Engineer. Since then I have obtained my Microsoft Engineering, Cisco Engineering and Project Management Certification. I have been consulting to a Fortune 100 company for over 10 years and earn well over six figures.
Have you been able to measure the success of your new phone app in numbers of those who’ve utilized it?
LB: Not yet, but I believe at the end of the year we will have some good numbers to go with. We had a radio interview that will air next weekend (Sunday, May 29, 2011) that should really provide mass exposure to teens, (and boost our numbers even more for the year).
What is your next step or project in helping those teens/adults who suffer abuse, battering, and are lost in the vicious cycle of prostitution/drugs?
LB: My dream is to open the first 24/7 walk in crisis center in our county. I have my eyes on a beautiful Victorian home/Apartment building in a Central Santa Ana. The area has been selected by California Endowment, and the city, for revitalization and youth safety prevention. The home/apartments are $600k total. I am praying. Someone once taught me to talk is to create. GOD said “let there be light” and there was light. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that existed within him that he spoke out into the world. As he spoke it created a vision in people’s hearts and minds. I spoke The Teen Project out into the world everywhere I went, and it exists now. I am now speaking everywhere I go about this home; a home where youth that are being molested, beaten, and working the streets will know about; a safe place that they can go anytime day or night and we will be there. If there was a home like that when I was a kid, I would have gone there. This house is also in an area where street prostitution is prevalent. We need help acquiring the home, capital funds. We can support the operational funds by reaching out to our present donors. The home will sleep 18 youth per night. Our primary goal is to get the youth living on the streets back to safety and a future, and to create a safe place for youth currently being abused in their home.
Finally, where can people log on to donate their time and/or donations to further help your cause?
LB: The can donate at www.theteenproject.com by hitting the donate button or by writing/calling 1.888.483-3643 or visiting the Teen Project, Inc. 22431 B160 Antonio Parkway, Suite 527 Rancho Santa Margarita, CA 92688.
For anyone finding themself in a situation of abuse, you are not alone. Do not hesitate. Dial 9 1 1. There is a world of help out there for you, organizations like Teen Project, and people like Lauri Burns, who care and will do everything they can to help get you safe, and get you back onto your path. Reach out. Hands are waiting to hold yours.
Shelters and help for abuse in San Antonio
- Shelters for the homeless in San Antonio
- Battered women’s shelters in San Antonio
- Sober living homes in San Antonio
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In addition to this local column, and her work as a Freelance Journalist in San Antonio, Michele Gwynn is also the National Animal Rights Examiner. Her love of pets began at an early age with a stray cat named Harvey, and a dying field mouse named Tucker. She is a pet parent to four cats, and an animal rights champion to all critters, large and small. Visit her animal rights column here.
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