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From Homeless Addict to University Graduate With Honors

While scrolling through Facebook, I came across an incredibly powerful story of redemption posted by Virginia (Ginny) Burton. It had gone viral, and rightfully so. What immediately captured my attention were the profound “before” and “after” photos that she posted side-by-side.

The transformation from the “before” to the “after” picture was nothing less than powerful. The “before” picture is of Ginny in the intense throes of her addiction, and the “after” picture is equally powerful because it shows Ginny, at age 48, proudly smiling in her cap and gown after receiving her undergraduate degree in political science with a minor in law, societies, and justice from the University of Washington where she was the recipient of the prestigious Truman scholarship from the Truman Scholarship Foundation.

After reading her story, which was posted on one of my law enforcement sites of all places, I thought to myself, I need to contact her because I want to know her story.

To start, I sent out a Facebook friend request hoping that she’d accept my invitation to connect, which she did. At first, we exchanged information mostly through Facebook messenger but eventually started emailing back and forth.

She’s had a demanding schedule over the past few months with interviews from regional and national news syndicates, and rightfully so. After a few weeks, she contacted me to see if I was still interested in hearing her story, which to me, needed to be told and shared with my professional network of criminal justice students, graduates, and those working in the criminal justice system as police officers, corrections officers, probation and parole officers, judges, and counselors.

Ginny’s story

Ginny was raised by two drug-addicted parents. Her mom had never worked, and her dad was in the military when they first got together. Eventually, he separated from the military and started a family that, according to Ginny, they were ill-equipped to support and raise.

Ginny was one of seven kids, the third child, and the first girl born into the family. It was Ginny’s mother who introduced her to drugs, namely marijuana, at age 7, and then to methamphetamine at age 12. By age 14, Ginny was smoking crack cocaine, and by age 16, she was raped by a man who sold drugs to her mother. At age 17, she attempted suicide, and by age 23, she was a full-blown heroin addict.

She emphasized to me that she continually felt hopeless and wished that someone would kill her because her life was out of control. She was abusing so many different drugs, did not trust anyone, was afraid to sleep, and committed crimes to support her addiction. To compound matters, she racked up 17 felony convictions over a 22-year span. She was tired, hopeless, and simply a shell of a person waiting to die.

When Ginny was 40 years old, she finally stopped using. She had tried to get and stay clean at age 25 but relapsed 18 months after being released from prison the second time. Ginny said that after that particular relapse, it became incredibly challenging for her to resist the thoughts of using. She was caught up in what she referred to as a vortex. When she was clean, she wanted to get high and when she was high, she wanted to get clean.

Over the years, she had several short spans of being in recovery, but unfortunately, she was arrested and sentenced to prison for a third time. Sadly though, she relapsed shortly thereafter, which she attributes to being in a toxic relationship filled with violence.

It wasn’t until she was arrested again and charged with five more felonies that she made the decision to no longer use drugs. She was now facing her fourth prison sentence and had had enough. She has committed to her recovery and is now in her ninth year of sobriety.

She returned to the community college in 2017. She was four years clean at the time, but the man she was living with had relapsed and was abusive when he was high. She knew that without intervention, he would go to prison, but likely receive limited help in addressing the underlining causes of his addiction.

She decided that by going back to school, she could change things for the better for those serving time in prison. She started attending school while supervising three programs with a nonprofit in Seattle.

She excelled academically as a student, and as a result, she was invited to join several honor societies. She was nominated for several scholarships, including being named a semifinalist for the Jack Kent Cooke scholarship. From there, she continued the search for more financial opportunities. The scholarships that she received were based on merit, service, academic performance, and life experience.

Fast forward to the present day. Ginny, her husband, and their 15-year-old daughter relocated to San Diego County after Ginny accepted an offer to be a national spokesperson for an overcomers network that is being launched this month, and she is the founding director of solutions institute with Solutions for Change in Vista, California.

When asked about her relationship with her older children who are both in their late twenties, Ginny said that she is connected to and has relationships with all of her children. When she can, she spends significant time with her grandson.

She admits that she tries to be present as much as she can in the lives of her children and grandchild. “I cheated them out of a parent and now do the best I can to show up in their lives today,” she says. “They know I am here for them now when they need me, but it does not take away from the damage that was already created, but it has allowed for healing to occur.”

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