Susan Burton's Amazing Second Act: Despair And Drugs To A Heroic Crusade

Susan Burton helps women change their life. She should know. She did it for herself Susan Burton wasn't surprised when she lost her job as a Realtor. Grief-stricken from the loss of her 5-year-old son, killed in a car accident years earlier, Burton had been on a downward spiral of crack cocaine and alcohol abuse, including stints in prison. "The writing was on the wall," she says of getting fired.

But for some, hitting rock bottom is a wake-up call. And that was the case for Burton, now 61. After losing her job in 1996, she says that she had one last prison stint a year later for drug possession and had her epiphany. "I was going to die a miserable death" she says, if she didn't make a change.

When she got out, she entered rehab and began a remarkable, three-year-long turnaround. Now she is executive director of a much-acclaimed rehabilitation shelter program called A New Way Of Life, an organization that she founded to help women like herself rebuild their lives and their careers. With five locations throughout the Los Angeles-area, A New Way of Life has helped roughly 650 women move from incarceration to a successful re-entry into society, garnering honors in the process. (Burton, above left, is pictured sitting with clients in the program.)

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Burton has received a Citizen Activist Award from Harvard and been the subject of documentaries. And just last year, Burton was one of five recipients of The Purpose Prize, a $100,000 award from given to people over the age of 60 who are living "second acts for the greater good."

The Goal: To Make Convicts Employable
Burton says that 80 percent of the graduates of the program have stayed out of jail 18 months after leaving it, which is remarkable given the high recidivism rate among prisoners in the U.S. A 2011 Pew Center report found that 60 percent of ex-convicts end up back in prison within three years. Many experts blame the lack of jobs for ex-convicts. Burton is brutal in her assessment of the U.S. criminal justice system. "It's a degrading experience," she says. "The prisons are for penalization, not rehabilitation."

For Burton, the road to recovery began after coming out of rehab and, through a friend, getting a job. She was hired to be a home aide to an elderly woman in South Los Angeles. "To be of help was a spiritual experience. This woman depended on me," she says. "That was quite a change for me. It was where I wanted to be."

Her client, Pearl Andrews, was so pleased with Burton's work that she told 14 of her friends about Burton, and they each hired Burton to work part-time for them as well. Earning $5.75 an hour and working 12 to 14 hours a day, Burton says that she managed over time to save $12,000.

The Lightbulb Moment
With the savings, Burton decided to work on getting her nursing certification so that she could open an agency one day. Yet when she applied for admission to a program in 1999, she was rejected because of her criminal record. The unfairness of it was her lightbulb moment: "My record didn't have anything to do with who I was today," she says.

She became an activist for former convicts re-entering society -- working with the Los Angeles-based Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment. Thirteen years later, her foundation has an annual budget of $1 million a year and she is credited with inspiring hundreds of former female convicts to build better lives and careers.

"She's lived through it, and that helps her connect her personal narrative with the issue," says Saul Sarabia, who worked alongside Burton at Community Coalition. "And while she has a lot of reason to be angry for the way [the penal system treats inmates], she replaces that bitterness with a sober assessment." In promoting her cause to potential donors and others, "she talks about redemption for the individual and the society that put her there," Sarabia says.

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In her program Andrews emphasizes a broad-based approach in which the women move into her shelters full-time. The New Way of Life program aims to make all its women ready to reenter society by ensuring that they have proper government identification and are signed up for all the appropriate government benefits.

The women then proceed to spend nine months to two years inside the shelters, focusing on a training program so that they can launch new careers. The work is done in conjunction with the California Department of Rehabilitation Services, which has helped position the women to assume a range of roles, from truck driver to beautician.

And some of the women have even become counselors and aides themselves. "Everyone wants to be a helper," says Burton. "It's good for the spirit."

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