Tears streamed down Susan Burton’s face as friends and supporters recently gathered at the Proud Bird restaurant to help her celebrate A New Way of Life’s Reentry Project’s 10th Anniversary Dinner.
The dinner marked a milestone for executive director Burton, whose organization, which is based in Watts and houses formerly incarcerated women, had struggled to keep its doors open.
Mistress of ceremonies Margaret Prescott, host of the KPFK Sojourner Truth radio show, urged attendees open their checkbooks and support the organization that has helped nearly 3,000 women gain a life self-sufficiency and a newfound sense of independence by offering housing, educational opportunities, life skills and gainful employment.
“Let’s all support A New Way of Life, whether it is supplying the organization with time, money, or whatever you can do,” said Prescott.
Burton announced that she was recently surprised on “The Secret Millionaire” FOX television show when millionaire DUB magazine publisher Ernie Kovacs presented her with a check for $50,000.
Kovacs, who pretended to be new to the Watts area, helped Burton plant a garden near one of her recovery homes. Kovacs did not reveal he was a millionaire until he returned several days later and announced that he was independently wealthy. He then surprised Burton with a check and a new car. At the dinner, Kovacs announced that he was so touched by the work that Burton had done over the years with ex-inmates that he has joined the board of directors at ANWOL.
Also honored at the dinner were Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Watts Labor Community Action Committee executive director Timothy Watkins.
Burton also honored Beth Anderson, Carol Inderieden, Max Zarling, Jenie Curtis and Elka Gilmore with the organization’s Synergy Award.
Candace Courtney, a volunteer at ANWOL, provided several musical selections.
Burton, who was formerly incarcerated, is in charge of the day-to-day operation of five homes in Watts and Compton as well as one in Oklahoma that house former inmates seeking to turn their lives around.
The ballroom of the Proud Bird was filled with dozens of formerly incarcerated women who had graduated from Burton’s program. Many of the former clients, who were attending with their husbands and children, had been reunited with their families through Burton’s efforts. Many of them hugged and thanked Burton for her efforts.
“Continually, I’m amazed at the work that comes out of A New Way of Life,” Burton told the audience. “Without you, there would be no me. All I did was show up and you guys showed me what to do,” said Burton.
Waters, a long-time friend, said, “I admire Susan so much. She continues to do the work. Those of us who work in difficult jobs day in and day out, you get mad. But all one needs is a few hours with Susan to once again feel revitalized and inspired. Susan is one of a kind. She’s motivating and she’s real. I love her because she came back to the community where she had experienced so much pain. Women coming out of incarceration need a friend and Susan turns out to be that friend. Women who find A New Way of Life and Susan know that when they hit the door, a new way of life really begins.”
Waters surprised Burton by presenting her with a certificate of special recognition. “I know you have a lot of plaques on your wall, but when I come to see you, you’d better have this one front and center,” joked Waters.
A touching moment occurred when Burton and Waters also honored Linda Washington, a former resident at one of her homes. Washington also received a certificate of special recognition and was presented with an education award for $800 to assist her in her nursing studies at Long Beach City College.
Children attending Wilshire Blvd. Temple in Los Angeles decided to “adopt” one of the women in Burton’s program and pooled their money to offer Washington the scholarship. Washington shed tears of joy and was nearly speechless when she learned that she had been chosen for the scholarship.
“I was totally surprised,” said Washington. “I had no idea that I would receive a scholarship for my LVN studies. I just couldn’t believe it and it just blew me away. I went blank on stage and I said, “What?” I was totally in shock. It was like God made the impossible to the possible. God truly has angels on this earth,” Washington said.