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Lauri Burns’ Teen Project performs a miracle in Trabuco Canyon

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Lauri Burns greets volunteers Shelby Laitipaya, Jianan Deng, Phoebe Weinholt and Michaela Shields at the old Boy’s Town Property in Trabuco Canyon. They are transforming the site into Vera’s Sanctuary for Women, a place for young sex-trafficking survivors.
(Photo by Spencer Grant)

If you’re searching for some true Christmas spirit, the kind Charlie Brown was looking for, then you should drive directly past the shopping centers and into the canyon. Specifically Trabuco Canyon, at the site of the old Boys Town property.

But first you need to know something that doesn’t seem to fit into a story about holiday spirit.

Girls, some as young as 13, and many from the foster care system, are being sold for sex. Right here. In Orange County.

Running away from whatever adult is pimping them out is complicated. For one, where would they run to? Yes, there are shelters throughout the county, but none specifically for girls who have gone through the special sort of hell that these girls have.

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Until now.

And that brings us back to the canyon.

Lauri Burns is a foster kid herself who once sold her own body to buy heroin and has gone on to rescue nearly 1,000 girls from the streets through her nonprofit The Teen Project. Burns recently purchased a chunk of the old Boys Town property — with a $1 million donation from an anonymous man — to transform it into a sanctuary for girls, specifically foster girls ages 15-21, who have been trafficked.

Abandoned a year ago when Boys Town (a home for at-risk youth) closed its doors, the property is perched on a peaceful hill with sweeping canyon views that on a clear day stretch to the ocean. There is a small tree-lined street up there, and five empty houses with tidy front porches. It looks like a movie set of a cozy little Any Town U.S.A.

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And that is what makes Burns so happy. She wants the girls who move in to feel like they are good enough for a street like this. For homes like these.

Those who feel the same way are invited to help her. A couple hundred people already have.

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(Photo by Spencer Grant)

After the news broke last week that Burns had bought the Boys Town property, community members, many complete strangers, began rolling up the canyon to help turn the empty houses into homes.

A TV actress. A former World Series home-run hitter. The Mission Viejo High School honor society. Retirees. Moms with their teenage girls. And 20 longshoremen from the port in San Pedro.

They arrived with saws and hammers. And lawnmowers and shovels. And muscles. Some wore hard hats, a few wore Santa hats. One woman drove up with a check for $4,000. Another with a cake she baked.

A cheer went up Saturday when Bob’s Discount Furniture arrived with an entire truck of bedroom sets to outfit all 30 bedrooms. Dunn Edwards sent 80 gallons of paint. Living Spaces sent sofas and chairs.

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Burns has been there practically nonstop (on very little sleep) since closing escrow Dec. 4, directing the volunteers.

“She’s making it a home instead of a facility, which gives the girls value, which gives them worth,” said Michael Brunt, who showed up Saturday with his husband, artist Patrick Marston (painter of the Venice Pride lifeguard tower).

The couple drove from Venice Beach, bringing along their neighbor, actress Hayley Orrantia, who plays Erica Goldberg on the sitcom “The Goldbergs.”

“It’s incredible,” Orrantia said. “There are hard-working, good people out here.”

Retired MLB catcher Jim Leyritz is one of them. The one-time Angel (and Dodger and Yankee) has been out in the canyon every day for two weeks since he and his wife heard about what Burns was doing through their couple’s group at Saddleback Church.

“I’ll do anything that needs to be done,” he said, which has so far included painting baseboards, ripping out old carpet, hoisting boxes — and phoning Angels Chairman Dennis Kuhl to ask for a donation.

Burns has re-named the property: Boys Town will henceforth be known as Vera’s Sanctuary.

Vera was a woman who died of cancer many years ago, leaving her young son an orphan. That son grew up to be a millionaire. And that millionaire is the mystery donor who wired $1 million to Burns this past summer, saying he planned to leave it to her in his will but decided he’d rather see how she spent it while he was still alive.

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A few weeks later, Burns got a phone call that the Boys Town compound was up for sale. She had, by coincidence, just met with some of the county judges on the Orange County Human Trafficking Task Force, who told her they were desperate for beds for survivors.

RELATED STORY: Mission Viejo mom works to help foster girls get their lives back on track »

In 2016, the task force assisted 234 sex trafficking survivors, all but seven female. Seventy-four of them were younger than 18.

“Vera’s Sanctuary for Women will help fill a critical gap in helping young human trafficking victims find shelter,” says Michelle Heater, who works with Waymakers, a nonprofit that administers the task force.

Burns has decided to name each of the five houses at Vera’s Sanctuary after some of the bigger donors.

One is named Otis Booth Residence after the deceased founder of the Otis Booth Foundation, which just donated $200,000. Another is named Robbins Residence after Lance Robbins, founder of Urban Smart Growth, which also just donated $200,000.

And the mystery man who donated $1 million to get the ball rolling just promised to wire Burns another $400,000. Since he doesn’t want his name revealed, she’s letting him pick whatever name he wants for a third house.

That means there are two houses left to be named, Burns says, with a wink. She also needs a bunch of artificial turf for the yards, by the way.

And she needs a pinch.

“This whole thing has been beyond my wildest dreams.”

Lori Basheda is a contributor to Times Community News.


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