This profile is one of eight first-person stories featured in Marc Freedman’s latest book, The Big Shift. Each person has taken a deeply personal journey in midlife that has led to work helping others.
I was beginning to hit 17, 18 years of cooking. When you cook, you tend to work prime time. You’re working Sundays, you’re working weekends, you’re working nights, you’re standing up all day, and I was realizing that this was just too much for me.
My arthritis began to get bad, and I just couldn’t take it, you know. So I called my pastor at my church, and I told her what was going on. She said, “Michael, why don’t you just come here and work in the soup kitchen and do some things around the church for a while until you can figure out what you want to do? We’ll take care of you.”
I worked at my church, Ames Memorial United Methodist, as a building facilitator. I did some cooking in the soup kitchen and in summer camps for the children. I started working with the little children. I was having fun with the kids and started doing some of the children’s sermons.
I sometimes showed them how to do art because I’m a painter. An AmeriCorps alumnus said, “Michael, you’re really doing good work with those kids. There’s a program called Experience Corps. You should try that.” I said, “I don’t know. I’ve been working in kitchens and cussing and yelling. I don’t think I can work with a child in a school.”
Truthfully, I was frightened by the idea of going into an elementary school. I had begun to lose my teeth, so I was self-conscious. I said, “This isn’t going to work. I’m not going to school looking like this.” I was worried about how the kids would look at me. When I got there, they asked, “Where are your teeth, Mr. Burke? What happened to you?”
I felt intimidated because I didn’t know if the children were going to like me. I kept thinking I would get upset one day and start yelling at them. I really did. I didn’t know what was going to happen. But those kids actually changed me for the better.
I was at an elementary school in Dallas, and it was just so beautiful. And the children, oh, wow! Next thing you know, I’m this guy that people are looking at, you know, just totally different now. I’m not thinking of myself anymore. Next thing you know, I said, “Let me get myself together.”
I remember an experience I had with one child. It was Martin Luther King’s birthday, and I wanted him to draw something. He was acting up, and he was saying, “Why should I care about him getting shot? My uncle got shot, so-and-so got shot. I don’t care.”
I said, “Well, let’s just write his name there.”
He said, “I don’t even know how to spell.”
I said, “I tell you what, I’m going to teach you how to spell. We’re going to write down ‘Happy Birthday’ to Martin Luther King – that’s all you’ve got to do. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to put down an H.”
He said, “I don’t know how to do an H.”
So I said, “I’m going to show you how you write an H.” So I went down and wrote down the letter T. I said, “There you go, there’s the H.”
He said, “That’s not an H.”
I said, “That’s a different H.”
He said, “That’s not an H.”
I said, “How are you going to tell me? I’m grown. I know what the letters are. This is an H.”
He said, “No, it’s a T. This is how you make an H.”
We went through the whole scenario like that. It became a game. After a while, he wrote, “Happy Birthday,” and everybody said, “Michael, how did you do that?” So I realized that I was a good person with children, that I had a lot inside of me that children needed.
They weren’t getting certain little things. I said, “This is wonderful.” And it’s been that way. It’s just been a wonderful experience.
I wrote a diary about my time in the school, and at the end of the year, I went to the principal, and I said, “Look, I want you to see something.”
I sat down and I read her parts of the thing, and she busted out crying. And then we both started crying.
But at the beginning, I was so afraid. When you do something for a very, very long time – it’s like if you’re a teacher and you taught for a very long time and then you retire, and then someone wants you to come and volunteer. You have to put that teacher, that authoritative teacher, away. You have to start all over. And I had to put parts of me away.
It was hard sometimes to walk into some place and just humble yourself and have somebody say, “Well, what you need to do is this and that.” And a side of you wants to say, “Look, I’m 50-plus years old. I know how to do that. You don’t have to tell me.”
It’s good to know things, but you don’t want to use your experience like that, as if “I’m just a know-it-all; you can’t tell me anything.” You’re supposed to humble yourself and be resourceful, so people can say, “You know what? Every time I go to Michael, he has some pretty good answers. He’s all right.”
So, I had to humble myself. The children helped me, because when you’re working with children, you have to kind of humble yourself. You have to speak well and softly. You have to look them in the eye. If you want them to listen to you, you have to be authentic, you know?
As an Experience Corps tutor for 15 hours each week, Burke received small stipends from the federally funded AmeriCorps program. At the same time, he took an office technology course and computer classes at The Community College of Baltimore County. After Burke spent three years as a tutor, Experience Corps in Baltimore hired him as a program assistant and training coordinator. He also continues to volunteer as a mentor of a 9-year-old boy with the Building Futures program at the Y of Central Maryland in Baltimore.