The following speech was given by James Burnett at United Ministries’ Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. His story moved all who heard it and was a true encouragement and inspiration.
Good afternoon. My name is James Wingate Burnett. I’m 38 years old from here in Greenville. When asked to speak today, I did not hesitate to take the opportunity to thank all those at United Ministries for what they done for me. When I realized it was for volunteers, I couldn’t say no because without the volunteers, it would be impossible for United Ministries to do what they do so well: helping people in need.
As I thought about what I would say to you, I ran into a dilemma. Should I give my testimony of sorts and explain or walk you through the bumps and hurdles I’ve faced in life, or should I concentrate on what United Ministries has done for me specifically? I came to the conclusion that without knowing what I’ve been through you would not be able to appreciate how much the volunteers at United Ministries helped me over the many bumps and hurdles.
I grew up off Augusta Road in Greenville about a mile away from downtown. I’m an only child but never knew it thanks to the comforts of a safe neighborhood filled with friends. My mother Celeste was a single mom, and we lived in the house she grew up in with her parents Troy and Reba Cobb. I never knew or felt the stigma of not having a father around. Growing up, my grandfather more than filled the role of dad and instilled in me a work ethic that only his generation could. One of, the harder you work, the better life is. I nearly lost all that, but with help, I’ve regained a new appreciation for determination. I say all this because their hard work probably saved my life more than once.
I was your average 80’s kid. Played all the sports, took piano lessons, sang in the chorus at school and the choir at church, took art and pottery lessons in the summertime to “stay out of trouble.” Something I probably should have kept up! School was fun for me–all A’s and B’s until I reached high school.
Greenville High School in 1991 was an interesting place for a teenager to be. Not only was the school itself intimidating, the hustle and bustle of an inner-city school was scary at first. I had never been subject to drug use in bathrooms and drinking in parking lots before. I found out what a sheltered life I had been living, and it was exciting to try new things.
Once I had my driver’s license, that’s exactly what I did. I started to gravitate to a different crowd of friends than I had growing up. While all my childhood friends continued on with sports, I grew my hair extremely long and used my love and knowledge of music to play in bands and partake in what comes along with that lifestyle. It was the perfect recipe to develop bad habits, which later almost ruined my life and the lives of the people I cared for and loved. With my increasingly long nights, my school attendance and grades suffered. I barely made it to my senior year, and halfway through it, realized I was going to be credits short of graduating.
I got a job cooking in a restaurant and never looked back. Moved out of my house at the age of 18 and acted like I was an adult, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
My mother was struggling with her own demons. The loss of my grandparents in a three year period overwhelmed her financially and with my moving out, she had fallen into a deep depression. I was oblivious to her struggles, caught up in the moment of my own apartment, car, paycheck, and countless nights partying.
God has fixed all that now. Things stayed the same and eventually got worse. I got a D.U.I. at the age of 21. Lost my job due to calling in sick, and the work ethic I was taught growing up had all but disappeared. I eventually was forced to move in with friend after friend, continuing my restaurant lifestyle for seven more years. I moved with a girlfriend to Washington D.C. thinking that if I got out of Greenville, I could make a new start.
All was well for a year or two, but my own demons reared their ugly head again, and I wound up back in Greenville, broke and homeless. Still having restaurant contacts in downtown, I quickly got back to work and was relatively fine for almost three years.
Then like clockwork, my old habits brought me back down. This time around, the damage was done. No one but my mom would talk to me, and I was truly on the street. Wintertime in Greenville is very unpleasant when you’re homeless, but if you know where to go, you surprisingly can live without much worry. Once I found out which places served meals and when, I created a schedule that consisted of bouncing from soup kitchen to soup kitchen. I found out where to get clothes, as I had lost everything. Eventually, I needed a place for the stuff I somehow accumulated. This is how I found Place of Hope.
I had always walked by it, but was apprehensive about what exactly went on there. I threw caution to the wind and decided that I needed a locker and a daily shower: things that some people take for granted. I filled the paperwork out and found a new sense of self. Now I had clean clothes, a shower, and didn’t have to tote around a backpack that Greenville’s finest love to see so much! Things were kind of looking up.
Gradually, I got comfortable with the lifestyle and my habits got in the way of any job opportunity. My lifestyle had begun to affect my health, and I was hospitalized multiple times for lack of just taking care of myself. I resorted to breaking the law to support my lifestyle and was arrested multiple times. My last arrest in October 2013 changed everything.
I was facing eight years in prison, and the game was up. I truly turned to God for help. I made no promises to Him, just asked for help and guidance. By His grace and mercy, the judge suggested, with my help, that I go through a seven month Christian rehab program called the Overcomers. Miracle Hill had helped me at their downtown mission before, so I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but anything was better than prison.
I arrived there Christmas Eve 2013, and my life was saved. I found structure and discipline. I needed to focus on reconstructing my life. My 2nd month there my educational background came up. I was told I was required to take GED classes at United Ministries.
Apprehensive at first, I thought there’s no way I’ll be able to remember anything that it takes to get my GED. I had, after all, not been taking very good care of my brain cells the last 20 years! But, I went to United Ministries and was blessed with people who actually wanted to help.
At first, I rarely told anybody I needed help. Having grown up with a mother who has a Master’s in English and History, I had a good grasp on Reading and Social Studies once I got started. Science was always interesting to me and luckily the Math involved with the Science part wasn’t so hard I didn’t get it!
Every Thursday morning I looked forward to going to the United Ministries building and saying hello to all the staff and volunteers. It’s nice when you’re in a situation like that to have people treat you like a normal person. I took the Reading and Social Studies test and passed with high grades. I then took the Science test and passed that as well. Everyone at United Ministries was so happy and proud of me. I knew I had made friends, not just acquaintances.
But then came the Math. I probably had ten different volunteers try to help me, and I found myself going over the same practice tests and still missing the same problems. I’d do great on one test and barely fail the next. The whole time this was happening, I never got a negative response from the volunteers or staff. They truly helped me keep my head up because I was getting closer to graduation from the Overcomers, and I was on borrowed time.
I took the Math test and failed by one point! I didn’t know what I was going to do. How could I continue without their help. God stepped in again and I was asked to do a six month internship for the Overcomers. I was hesitant but something told me to do it.
So, in July 2014 I started my internship, and this gave me more time at United Ministries to tackle my pesky Math problem. I started to listen to what the teachers were trying to say. “Don’t concentrate on practicing what you already know. Learn the stuff you don’t know.” I eventually was paired up with this over-caffeinated, rocket scientist named Paul Shultz!
This was my breakthrough. He approached my situation from a different angle that was cohesive to how my thought process works. He would write these ridiculous university grade Math problems on the board, give me a marker, and we’d go to work. Sometimes, one problem would take up the whole board. I thought it was special when I’d come in the next week, and our problem would still be on the board.
That’s what’s awesome about United Ministries. The people really, truly care about seeing you succeed. I took the Math test and passed. At the age of 38, I got my GED and achieved what I thought was unachievable. Through homelessness and rebuilding my education, United Ministries and its volunteers helped me get my life back. Without volunteers like Paul and so many others, people in my situation would be without hope. Volunteers are what make places like United Ministries a Godsend.