Proof that a traumatic past does not have to dictate your future.
As a child, Lakesha Burton had dreams of becoming an Olympic runner — but life took her on another course.
It had nothing to do with her athletic abilities: She was faster than all the boys in elementary school, and her coach told her she had definite promise.
Her dream was derailed because she was sexually abused by her stepfather when she was only 11 years old.
The negative emotions she experienced as a result took her down a dark path that led to drugs and various delinquencies. Eventually she got pregnant at the age of 14.
"I purposefully got pregnant because I thought that might end my abuse," Burton admits.
But the abuse didn't end. When her stepfather attempted it in front of her baby, she decided she had to take her and leave home.
She stayed at a friend's house that first night and woke up to the police who had been called by her friend's mother.
According to Burton, one of the officers named Victor Jefferson kneeled down, hugged her, and said, "I believe you. And I’m going to make sure this man never touches you again."
Her stepfather was arrested, but the charges against him were dropped. This fueled Burton's downward spiral, and soon enough, she was on the verge of suicide.
Thankfully, after a revelatory experience at church, Burton was inspired to turn her life around.
Praying at a local church revival helped her feel relief from her emotional pain for the first time. She decided then and there that she'd dedicate her life to helping others.
She went back to school, and joined the Jacksonville, Florida, Police Athletic League (PAL). There, she started playing basketball there regularly.
PALs exist all over the country and aim to foster positive relationships between police officers and kids in the community through various programs.
Burton with kids at PAL. All photos below via the Jacksonville, Florida, PAL.
Her basketball training at PAL led to her landing a full scholarship to the University of Central Florida, where she got herdegree in criminal justice.
She chose this major because she wanted to bring all child molesters to justice. "I wanted to be that police officer that responds and treats victims with dignity," Burton says. And that's exactly who she became.
In her time working for the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, she's already put several child molesters in jail.
She also managed to track down and thank the officer who initially offered her comfort after her own traumatic experience years before.
"You are my angel; you changed my life," she told him.
Two years ago, she returned to PAL as an officer intent on giving something back to kids who might be struggling.
Burton on the job at the Jacksonville PAL.
Because she had a difficult childhood, she thought the kids would be able to relate and open up to her. If kids are opening up about their issues, she says, there's a chance more traumatic incidents will be prevented.
She once spoke with two girls at PAL about low self-esteem, and when she told them she struggles with it too sometimes, they started crying. She asked them, "What can I do to help you see your value?" They replied, "Can we have a slumber party?"
So, Burton began organizing a massive slumber party for 200 girls at her PAL, and it was so successful, they do it every year now.
Some of the teen girls at the Jacksonville PAL with Burton.
This past year, they even organized a surprise flash mob for them. After one sleepover, a girl came up to Burton and said, "Oh my gosh, we didn’t know police officers were cool!"
"I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this matters,'" Burton exclaimed.
Today, as PAL's executive director, Burton is spearheading many community-building initiatives.
Burton's Lunch with a PAL initiative in full swing.
She established a program called Mobile PAL, which takes all the relationship-building activities PAL practices indoors onto the streets of Jacksonville.
"There’s a lot of enforcement in the low-income areas," Burton explained. "Younger people don’t know how to process that. So Mobile PAL goes out and engages them with fun activities. It allows kids to humanize police officers."
She even contacted local restaurants to help her launch the program Lunch with a PAL where kids can have a free meal with officers and talk about anything.
Burton organizing a game through Mobile PAL.
According to PAL's most recent impact report, 100% of students in the program were free from physical harm and arrest.
Ninety-seven percent matriculated into the next grade at school.
The organization is helping kids better themselves and feel more connected to police officers. The officers are doing all they can to show kids there are many who want to be there for them. So far, it seems to be working.
PAL has programs in cities all over the country. You can learn more about the organization as a whole here, including learning how to start your own, and finding your local PAL. If you're a child going through something, you don't have to do it alone. Officers at PALs around the country are here to help.
Update 7/21/2017: Minor points of this story were changed for clarity.