Nestled along the grassy edges of a park, a southwestern-style house cuts an elegant figure in the tree-filled neighborhood of Lake Forest, in Southern California. The home belongs to Lauri Burns, and the first time she walked into it, her eyes filled with tears. But Lauri never planned to live in the newly renovated six-bedroom abode. Instead, she built the "Teen House" for the many foster daughters she has sheltered since 1996.
At 49, Lauri is a technology executive at a Fortune 100 company, a published author, a public speaker and a "grandma" to 10 children, all while parenting 39 foster girls. Most recently, she has emerged as one of the country's leading foster kids' rights activists. Through her foundation, The Teen Project (TTP), Lauri helps "America's forgotten kids" find homes and turn away from the likelihood of a life of addiction, prostitution and jail.
Lauri's preternatural ability to communicate with troubled teens comes from her own childhood experience. She seemed to have it all growing up in an affluent Long Island, New York, suburb. But behind closed doors, Lauri lived a nightmare. On a regular basis she endured severe beatings at the hands of her father that only worsened as the years passed. At age 14, Lauri ran away for the first of many times. Her mother (who lived in California) arranged to have her put in a group residence, where she joined other wayward teens. Unbelievable as it may seem to those who know her today, she burglarized homes in order to get high with money from the stolen goods, ended up in juvenile hall and was removed from her parents' guardianship. At 16, as a ward of the court, Lauri entered another group facility where foster kids lived under constant supervision. Finally, at 23, Lauri became sober and slowly turned her life around.
Now she is helping other teens do the same. For the past 16 years, she has taken in many of Orange County's toughest girls. And though she had invited her 18th foster child into her personal home by 2006, she still felt she could do more. So that March she accepted an invitation from the County Supervisors office to guest-sit on its Foster Care Advisory Board. "Foster care" is an umbrella term for different types of living situations for children who are under a state's care. The court places most kids in either a foster home, where youth live in a family's house, or in a group facility for those who require stricter supervision from a trained staff in a controlled setting. After sharing her ideas on how to improve services, she heard two social workers discussing the cases of three kids who had "emancipated"—aged out of the system when they turned 18—and subsequently gone missing. For all the foster parenting Lauri had done, she knew very little about the grim realities teens faced across the nation after emancipation, a word she had not even heard before. "I rushed home, turned on my computer and was devastated to learn that 65% of foster children in California were being released to the streets on their 18th birthday with nowhere to live," she says. Shockingly, it was sometimes the social workers themselves who dropped off kids at homeless shelters.
Lauri decided to start a community where former foster kids could live, heal and go to college until they were ready to become self-supporting adults. But she realized she first needed to start a foundation to raise awareness about the connection between foster care and teen homelessness. Her idea spread rapidly through word of mouth, and support for the project came from friends, community members and neighbors. By September 2007, she had 20 volunteers and $400 in small donations to establish the nonprofit.
After Lauri raised $180,000 through grants and private donations within 10 months, the first order of business was to build the Teen House, a transitional home for kids aging out of foster care. She found a modest home in Lake Forest and got contractors to refurbish it. Two weeks before the grand opening in March 2010, Lauri walked in and was struck by what she saw: dark wood floors, custom-tiled bathrooms, appliances and themed rooms for each of the six bedrooms, most of it from donors. "You could feel the love the moment you walked in," she remembers. Lauri estimates 40% of the total refurbishing cost was donated, and the remainder was highly discounted.