The press release headline certainly grabs your attention: “Former Prostitute Turned Fortune 100 Executive Is Saving Troubled Teens In California.”

Here’s what the release said about Lauri Burns’ background: “She grew up with daily beatings from her father; was committed to a mental institution for the criminally insane by the age of 13; was in and out of over 13 correctional institutions by the age of 16; was addicted to heroin and was a ‘known’ prostitute by the age of 19.”

Today Burns is the founder of The Teen Project, a group helping homeless youth that is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Ambassadors of Hope. And Burns has written her story in a new book: “Punished for Purpose: From Out of the Darkness Came A Powerful Healing Light.”

Here she shares about her life and about making a difference in the lives of youth.


As someone who’s lived on the streets, what’s your message today to young people?

If you hate school and the thought of college makes you ill, go for a trade school. When I saw that I could complete computer school in nine months and start at 40k, I was sold. There are so many opportunities for trade school. Google “trade schools.”

Don’t let the loan amount scare you. It is normally 20k a year. When you get a job, you will make small monthly payments. I hated school, but I loved computers. Now I play all day and make more than most doctors.

I have kids that hated school, but loved wood shop that are CNC engineers in nine months, hated school, but loved dressing up becoming hair dressers and clothing designers in nine months. All very successful and all have the ability to make over 100k while having fun.

If you’re parents are willing to help you, no matter how many rules they have or how annoying they are, try your hardest to use them to get the help you can get now to live independently in the future.

Rushing out of the door towards independence without a solid plan is a recipe for disaster and will secure you a definite “I told you so” in the future. Nobody wants that. As crazy annoying as your parents are – many of them turn out to be normal after you turn like 30. If they are really messed up and don’t get better, at least you will have broken the crazy chain and gotten a life.

What was a turning point in your life? Was there someone who first offered you a different way to live?

The turning point in my life is when I let go of the secrets from my childhood. The abuse that left me feeling dirty, unwanted and angry. When I was 24, I met a therapist who wasn’t like one of those paid people that just listen, write and nod. This lady spoke up and was quite bossy at that. She said it like it was. I needed that. She told me straight out that I needed to get rid of the secrets or I would return to my old way of life. She taught me that I had kept the secrets to protect my family in the hopes that one day they would value me (so that I could value myself). I kept their secrets at the price of killing myself. How could I blame the people that abused me when I was doing the same thing to myself? Someone needed to give me a break and it needed to start from within. Even if I didn’t believe that I was worth valuing, the very act of protecting myself would create a shift within that would change everything. When I was 24 and I finally confronted my father about abusing me and hiding the gun (police arrested Burns and sent her to a psychiatric center over her father’s accusation that she took his gun in order to kill him), I knew just a few seconds after it happened that my whole universe had shifted. That was the day my new life began.

As someone now reaching out to young people, what’s your message to adults?

My life was saved by a stranger when I was 24 after an encounter with two gunmen. I truly believe that man was sent by a higher source to find me. How he noticed my body on the side of the road, I will never know.

When I got better and I reflected back on my life, I saw that there were always people there for me. I remembered them clearly. These people left in an imprint in my heart that will always be there. I tried to locate several people that intervened. I wanted to say I felt your love and it scared me – so I ran.

Their love went against all of my beliefs and I was unable to resolve the conflict. I apologize for never letting you know how much you helped me and trying so hard not to let you see it. I want to tell you that your love resonated with me. This is the very sort of conflict that eventually causes a person to change, the growing feeling that someone cares…

If you are an adult helping young people, please know… they hear you, they feel you… even if they never tell you – your seeds are planted. Know that the love and support you are providing is penetrating. Kids are good at putting up walls. I have had 30 kids, 15 or so of which that I thought I had not reached.

Over the years those kids came back one by one saying things like, you are the only person who ever taught me what was right or wrong. This was the safest place I had ever been, but I didn’t realize until I left. It made me mad each time you grounded me, but I always knew it was because you loved me. These comments came from the kids that I would have bet my life never heard me and would never find their way out.

Would you share about the difference you’ve made in the life of one young person?

One little girl came to my home when she was 16. She was a beautiful, very normal looking young lady who got straight A’s in school and sang at all of the school plays. She was overly responsible and seemed very grown up. When I interviewed her, it seemed like she was a “normal” every day kid.

It was about a year later that I realized the extent of her abuse. Sexual abuse since the age of 3 at the hands of her father. After a while, she allowed it so that he wouldn’t get to her little sister (which he eventually did any way). One thing you must understand is that abused kids still love their parents and feel connected. The more you make the parents evil, the more evil the kids feel because they are part of that person.

So, I talk a lot about the cycle of abuse and how an abused kid abuses others. We talk about family history. And we talk about “being the change” like Gandhi said, in your family. That you can love your mom or dad while still having strong protective boundaries and speaking out the “truth” about the abuse.

Telling your parents you love them while still taking a strong stand in speaking out against what they did to you. You can be the change in your family that affects your whole generation. When this little girl was 18, she bravely walked into court and although she says pointing to her father when the judge asked, “Do you see your abuser in this room?” was the hardest thing she ever had to do in her life. She showed up every day to speak her truth to a man who wasn’t ready to hear it and ended up being sentenced to 126 years in prison.

Although she loves her father and feels sorry for him still, she transformed not only her own life, but the lives of her four younger sisters and brothers who know now that their big sister loved them so much that she did the scariest thing in her life to make sure they were never hurt again. She still says, he is my dad and I love him. He is a monster and he is my dad. I get it.

Can you talk about what the Teen Project is doing to help young people and any ways that those efforts might affect young people around the country? For example, people can go on the organization’s website, type in a zip code and learn what local groups offer at-risk youths a place to stay in Santa Rosa and around the U.S.

Youth between 18-24 that are homeless can go on our website and search for a place to live or they can text the word SHELTER followed by their ZIP CODE to 99000 and we will return a local shelter to their phone within 40 seconds. They can also text ABUSED or SOBER depending on their needs.

If you had the power to rewrite laws or regulations to better serve at-risk youth, what changes would you enact?

Let them stay in foster care until they are finished with college. Don’t throw them out on the streets on their 18th birthday, they are not ready or capable of making it.

While normal kids are planning for the most exciting times in their life (college/vacations), foster kids are preparing for the end. The loss of the only safe home they know and a future of uncertainty and pain.

Children should be able to report their parents in a discrete manner which provides for the parent to get help and in some cases leaving the child at home and assigning counselors to the house. The parent should get drug testing and alcohol testing with the threat of going to jail. Punish the abuser, not the child. I am aware of parents that committed heinous crimes that never saw a day in jail, but the child has been to over 15 homes in a period of 10 years.

You turn heads with your book’s title, “Punished for Purpose.” Why did you want to use the word “punished” in summing up your story?

As a child I thought GOD hated me. I believed that is why chose my father for me. I believed I was a witch in a past life and he was punishing me for my sins. I believed it so much that I felt like a witch.

I remember the day it shifted. It was the middle of the night. I had five teen girls living in my home. I was awakened by a little girl weeping. When I exited my room, through the darkness I saw her silhouette. She was slamming her head on the wall in the bathroom because she was having flashbacks of the molestations that occurred when her mom left her in a house full of drug addicted men. I knelt down next to her and I spoke softly. I knew not to touch her. I knew not to turn on the light and I knew not to overreact. I knew because I was 12 again in that moment… that is when I realized… GOD didn’t hate me. He loved me so much that he prepared me to be HERE. NOW. From that day forward, I have never looked back. I am thankful for my dad and my days on the street – because it is from the darkest times of my life that I have returned to today to take the hand of a child living in the darkness and lead them out.

What’s next for your efforts?

Working on my script and a book for parenting teens.