Lauri Burns had the sort of early life that you tend to assume a person wouldn't survive: She was abused, institutionalized, addicted and in a succession of foster homes before the age of 15. The fact that she ended up as a prostitute isn't surprising. The surprising part is that she not only made radical changes to her life but has also managed to use the darkest facts about it to motivate her to help kids in similar situations.
At 23, Burns turned her life around, getting sober and beginning to build her career as a computer program manager at defense manufacturer Northrop Grumman. That was over 25 years ago. Since then, she's maintained both her sobriety and her career, but that's not even the impressive part: Since 1998, she's been opening up her home to teens who would otherwise be homeless, fostering over 30 of them in all, and in 2007, she opened The Teen Project, a five-bedroom home near where she lives in Mission Viejo, Calif. to house even more. Oh, also? In 2012, she opened a Venice, Calif. homeless teen drop-in center and, in her "spare" time, set up an online database where any kid in the nation can text the word "shelter" and their zip code and be texted back the nearest place they can go.
The latest project on the agenda for Burns is opening Freehab, a privately-supported rehab facility which is exactly what its name makes it sound like it is -- entirely free. The brainchild of actor Russell Brand and film producer and philanthropist William Johnson, Freehab will be opening in March 2014 as a 100-bed facility that will offer food, shelter, addiction treatment, high school equivalency obtainment and much more. (While they'll be prioritizing 18- to-24 year-olds, adults will also be allowed -- though they'll be housed separately.)
Burns got involved with the project last November, when Johnson and Brand reached out to her. They said, "We're working on this thing called Freehab and the idea is formulated and we've got the mission statement but we need a project manager," says Burns, who already knew Brand because of his support of the Teen Project. Because Johnson wanted the space to be in an old treatment center and Brand was committed to the idea of having it be in a warehouse, Burns initially thought she might be trying to do the impossible.
Yet perhaps because she'd already done the impossible many times over, Burns managed to find an old treatment center that was attached to a warehouse just five minutes past Burbank in a town called Sun Valley. "Russell walked through the treatment center part and I could see he wasn't liking it and then we got to the warehouse and he said, 'This is it! We can stop looking!'" Burns recalls with a laugh.
The entire thing is currently being renovated and the plan is to make the warehouse into a trade school so that residents can graduate from rehab with actual skills they can put to use. "The goal is a full life transformation, from streets to success," Burns says. "Because with most rehabs, a person gets out and it's like, 'Okay I've got to go back to my apartment, clean out the alcohol and I'm going to be right back where I was.'" The trades are all going to be skills "you can get quickly," Burns explains, including medical and dental assisting and WordPress development. She envisions residents doing internships with local businesses and already has marketing on her mind. "We can have our WordPress students create websites for local companies and put our logo on the right hand corner -- something which says 'Supports Freehab,'" she says excitedly. "We'll do it at a reduced cost because our kids will be learning while they do it."
The trade school isn't the only place where Burns is able to put her creativity and dedication to community support to work; there's also a treatment center to decorate. "I put a call out to the community where I basically said, 'We have 30 rooms and you can come in as a company or an individual and decorate." Burns also let the community know that they're looking for actual stuff to fill those rooms -- furniture, lamps, pictures and whatever else people have, provided it hasn't been used. "Every room will have a sign which says who the room was designed by and who supported it [donated the contents]," Burns says, adding that the warehouse is "filling up" with donations and the designer Cynthia Vincent and the actor Robert Downey, Jr. are among those who have committed to decorating specific rooms. "Freehab," Burns says, "is about a community coming together to support its people."
That being said, Freehab is still actively seeking support. "We have enough to open but not at the level we'd want to," Burns admits, adding that she's writing grants as well as putting on a series of fundraising events. The next one? Freehab's Casino Night "unveiling" on Sunday, Dec. 22, a $100-a-head event where a ticket includes dinner as well as $500 in game chips. The event is open to all and, for this one night anyway, gambling is encouraged. And it seems fitting: While no one would have gambled on Burns in early life, her current winning streak cannot be denied.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.