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Wanda Burks gives more than she takes

Wanda Burks has packed a lot into her 61 years. She’s raised two children as a single parent, worked as a certified nursing assistant (CNA), started a nonprofit and earned her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration while experiencing homelessness. She’s currently pursuing her Master of Science in Psychology at University of Phoenix.

She’s learned a lot about life, the criminal justice system and people along the way. Tellingly, she remains a hopeful believer in humanity.

“Blood is not always family,” she says. “Blood is that person who’s got your back when you’re down and you need somebody.” 

Rising to the occasion

For many people, Burks is that somebody. She’s that somebody for those she met while she was homeless. (“I still keep in touch with them. If they need something, I make sure they have it, whether it’s food, clothing or whatever,” she says.)

She’s that somebody for perfect strangers, like the time she went to the beach on her day off and noticed a little girl who seemed to be homeless. Burks got involved. She spent hours talking to the mother, learning about her situation and encouraging her to reconcile with the grandmother. Eventually, she took the mother and child to the grandmother’s house where they could stay and, hopefully, repair the relationship.  

Burks doesn’t believe in turning a blind eye to difficult situations. “If we don’t reach out to people, who will?” she asks. “How would you want people to treat [someone on the street] if she were your daughter or granddaughter? My mindset is always to help people.”

Burks set upon this road after becoming a CNA when she was 19 and a mother. Drawn to the “invisible” patients — those with mental health or substance abuse issues — she began to see how easy it was for them to fall through the cracks.

She also worked with troubled teenagers. Gradually, she realized she needed a stronger grasp of the criminal justice system if she were going to help them. “It’s easy to go out there and get into trouble, but it’s really hard to get out of it,” she says.

Burks launched a nonprofit organization out of her home called Operation X: We Feed All In Need around 2013. The goal was to help individuals with food, shelter, legal assistance and other resources. The grassroots undertaking frequently has Burks in the trenches, like the day she helped the mother and child on the beach.

“I keep clothes and blankets and stuff in my trunk, so if I see something that catches my eye, I stop,” she says.

Teana Debroux, friend and colleague of UOPX alumna Wanda Burks

Teana Debroux 

Burks met Teana Debroux three years ago when they were both on a community service board. “She would see me come in to work with clothes that could be a little looser, and she invited me to her house because she had brought me clothes that [were] comfortable,” Debroux recalls. “I tried to pay her for them [but] she wouldn’t take it. Also, when someone would come in hungry or thirsty, she would offer what she had.”

Running her nonprofit has also taught Burks a lot about the other side of the system, the one where police officers and detectives are as invested as Burks is in helping people. She’s gone on police ride-alongs and, as she puts it, “come into contact with people I never would’ve otherwise known.”

From helping to homeless

While practical experience is a good teacher, Burks eventually recognized she could only do so much with her hard-won experience. Earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice would give her more knowledge about how to navigate a sometimes confusing system.

She enrolled at University of Phoenix for a degree in criminal justice, eager to position herself to do more. Then, disaster struck.

Eligible for a community program that provided complimentary home repairs and renovations, Burks signed up to have her roof and cabinets replaced. Her home had always been central to her work and her philosophy: She recalls welcoming her daughters’ friends over the years when they’d find themselves on the outs with their own parents.

“My house has never been empty,” she says. “With my daughters’ friends, when their mothers kicked them out when they got pregnant … [I said,] ‘Stay right here. I will readjust my schedule as long as you promise me that you will go to school and graduate,’ and that’s what they did.”

As the work on her home progressed, however, problems began to multiply. The cabinet work wasn’t done properly, she says, and the ceiling in one bedroom gave way to become a yawning expanse where the fan had once been. But it was the discovery of black mold that spelled disaster for Burks. She had to leave her home, and she had nowhere to go.

“During my time getting my bachelor’s, I was mostly homeless, sleeping in my car, doing homework at McDonald’s with the Wi-Fi,” Burks says. “I [was] homeless all through everything, but that did not stop me from doing what I wanted to do, because I still help my people. I still provided for my people. I still maintained my grades.” 

Overcoming the odds

Burks did more than maintain her grades. She completed her bachelor’s degree, returned home, earned a master’s in criminal justice and is pursuing a second master’s in psychology.

Why the second master’s? As an employee of the Commonwealth of Virginia, she has her eye on a case manager role. She has the experience, but she needs more educational credentials. “I didn’t want them to give it to me,” she says, underscoring her desire to earn what she receives.

“So, I decided, ‘OK, I’m 61 right now, but I’m going to go back to school. I’m going to get this psychology degree, and I’m going to go into mental health, and I’m going to work for the people,’” Burks says.

She’s set to complete her degree in February 2025.

In the meantime, she refuses to slow down, refuses to let life circumstances get her down. To her mind, life isn’t meant to be easy. It’s meant to challenge her into growth.

“When you stop, you don’t disappoint other people,” she says. “You stop and disappoint yourself.”

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Portrait of Elizabeth Exline

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

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