A Small Epiphany Leads to a Big Life's Purpose

Issue: 
June 2012

There was a moment a few years ago, while 26-year-old Erika Burnett was still an undergrad student at Tennessee State University, when she realized that a life of serving others was just the life she wanted.

She’d volunteered with some friends to tutor inner-city kids through the Youth Encouragement Services program. “They paired me with a little girl named Epiphany,” she recalls. “She was being sort of difficult that day.”

“I hate math!” the 7-year-old announced, all pique and stubbornness.

Burnett quickly grasped that the other volunteers were avoiding working with Epiphany. And, as a newer volunteer, she’d gotten “stuck” with the kid nobody wanted to deal with. But as she chatted with the little girl, Epiphany started talking about Burnett’s hair. That broke the ice.

“She really liked my hair,” Burnett laughs. And that tiny connection was enough — enough to help Burnett see that the small girl’s bravado veiled her fear, that she hated math because she didn’t understand it, that nobody had ever bothered to try to crack her shell before. Suddenly the two were working on math homework together. “And before she left, she gave me a hug,” Burnett says. “And she said, ‘Will you be back next week?’”

Burnett recalls regretting the promise the following week, thinking about all the better things she had to do that afternoon. “I dragged myself back, and she was waiting at the door,” smiles Burnett. “And the director said, ‘She’s refused to work with any other volunteer.’”

For the next two years, until Epiphany’s family moved away, Burnett and Epiphany “had a great relationship.” Even simple things, like trips to a mall or restaurant, were largely outside of the little girl’s experience — as was spending her days with a female role model working towards a college degree. Epiphany lived in a tough housing development. Her cousin had been killed, her favorite uncle incarcerated. “That was her reality,” says Burnett. “And for her to understand that this person whose hair I like is in school and likes it. Now she wants to be around more college-educated African-American women. That’s a complete paradigm shift.

“And I realized,” she says, “we can make a difference in one person’s life if we choose to.”

Burnett gravitated toward service work early in life. The Detroit native moved to Indianapolis at age 12 and began volunteering at a children’s museum. She’d regale visitors with stories about how to mummify a body, or get on her hands and knees with kids to demonstrate how archeologists dig into ancient sands. “I learned a lot about Egypt,” she recalls.

Today, Burnett works at Hands On Nashville, leading a yearlong grant project that integrates service learning into TSU’s first-year student orientation curriculum. On a recent spring Saturday, she coordinated student volunteer projects all over the city, hustling from a community garden to an industrial kitchen where college kids learned to prepare delicious, healthy food. She hopes her work at TSU may inspire a new generation of young people to enjoy helping others as much as she has. “All those people who poured into me,” she says of family, professors, and co-workers, “now I pour that into these students.”

It’s far too easy, Burnett points out, for people to think of volunteerism as a sort of feel-good vacation rather than a way to live your life. And in the communities she serves, she keeps seeing this skepticism. That’s why, for Burnett, true service is all about keeping promises, like the one she made to Epiphany, and sticking around for the long haul, weaving her service into a life’s purpose.

On that path, she’s earned a master’s degree from Vanderbilt in education and community development, worked on domestic violence prevention at the YWCA, and volunteered at an orphanage in Uganda. Her interests are broad, but her vision is pure: She wants to connect, to impart knowledge, to share all the aspects of herself that some tough little corner of the world might need. “To take all those pieces of me and use them to make a difference,” she says, describing her dream life. “The things we do for each other can transcend the most devastating conditions ever.”


Photo by Michael W. Bunch

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