"My hair was all over," Burns recalls. "I had blood dripping down my arms. It was the most horrible feeling."
That moment, after a decade of life on the street – and a near-fatal beating from a john a few months later – scared her straight. She vowed to turn her life around and succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, going to trade schools and parlaying a knack for math into a thriving career as a computer program manager at defense manufacturer Northrop Grumman.
Even as she rebuilt her own life, Burns resolved to rescue other girls at risk of falling through the cracks. Since 1998, she has taken in more than 30 girls as a foster mom; in 2007, she founded the Teen Project, a nonprofit that has provided counseling, life-skills education and old-fashioned mothering to hundreds of girls when they age out of foster care at 18.
Today, at 49, she is a strong and steady support for five young women now living in the Teen Project home, a five-bedroom house not far from Burns's home in Mission Viejo, Calif. Burns purchased the house with funds raised from private donations. One of Burns's two employees serves as a den mother to former foster kids who stay there for about two years.
Earlier this year, Burns opened a drop-in center for homeless young people in Venice, Calif. Burns has found temporary homes – in some cases her own – for 10.
Young women whom Burns has helped say her energy and belief in them made all the difference. "My life has changed in every way," says Rose Hernandez, 21, who escaped a childhood home she describes as abusive. She recently graduated from cosmetology school.
Also moving up in the world is Janelle Garcia, 25, who finished her stint at the Teen Project house last year and then lived with Burns while she completed her associates degree. Recently accepted at the University of Alaska, she plans to become a doctor and just got engaged. "If Lauri can see it in me, and she's that successful, then I believe it. And I know I can make it."
All of which makes Burns—married for three years to Jeff McMullens, 61, and eagerly anticipating the upcoming wedding of daughter, Summer, 29, a Columbia University graduate and social worker—feel her own struggle was worth it. "I wouldn't," she says, "trade my life for anyone's."
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Courtesy Jason Krieger