If you walk down the streets of Baltimore and you see a woman surrounded by strangers in need of a home, a meal, a job, or just a place to cool their heels until trouble subsides, it’s probably April Burrell.
“People just seem to gravitate to me for some reason,” Burrell says. “They just walk up and start telling me their life story. Don’t know why. Guess they just feel safe.”
What they likely feel is a kindred spirit. Burrell has been where they are. A product of the hardscrabble streets of Baltimore who rose above her roots to not only survive but thrive, Burrell said she was a mother at 16 with no education, nowhere to live, and nowhere to turn, aside from the wrong places.
But she was also a survivor who is now giving back to the city that in the month of April became a national flashpoint for African-American rage and despair in the wake of the killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in police custody. (The six officers allegedly responsible were charged in his death May 1 and formally indicted May 21.)
“It feels sad because we destroyed our own community,” Burrell, 44, says of the riots and looting that accompanied the protest. “But at the same time, I understand. That’s what youth do when they have no other outlet. You take away recreation, you take away jobs, you take away hope, then you start killing them, what are we expecting them to do?”
Burrell was referring not only to the destruction from the unrest but the fact that Baltimore has only three community recreation centers still in operation to serve the entire city. And the jobs for unskilled youngsters, she notes, are few and far between. Left without sports and employment options and out on the street, young people turn to drugs and mayhem in an area that appears largely to have abandoned them.
This is where The Power of One (or in this case, perhaps Two) comes into play, because April Burrell wasn’t about to stand by and watch kids flounder in their community without doing everything she could to change it.
Burrell and her husband of six years, Donald, made a decision five years ago that if Baltimore wasn’t going to give opportunity to the underprivileged youth population, they would. They organized fundraising car washes. They formed a carpet cleaning philanthropy that provided jobs and taught skills and responsibility to teenagers while also providing a valuable service to seniors on a fixed income.
Then they were able to start their own business. Broke but motivated, April and Donald Burrell were given the opportunity in 2012 to purchase their own property restoration franchise: 911 Restoration Baltimore.
“Now we’re able not only to make a living but provide jobs for eight different families and several subcontractors,” Donald Burrell says proudly. “Because of the start they gave us, we’re able to put food on a lot of tables.”
They’ve also kept a lot of juveniles out of trouble. The couple used their new business to form the outreach organization Second Chance Restoration, which sponsors food and clothing drives and uses their company’s expansive warehouse to—among other things—give a local marching band a space to practice.
For April, it’s all about opening up her heart. Not that it was ever closed. In fact, April Burrell is renowned in these parts as the ‘Mother Teresa’ of Baltimore. In the way that some people can’t turn their back on a puppy or kitten, Burrell has empathy for people—particularly young ones.
Burrell has been aiding people in need ever since she got a roof over her head for good at 19, for the past 25 years. She estimates that she’s taken in more than 400 people for varying periods during the past quarter-century.
After Freddie Gray, youth need someone to guide them in the right direction… You show kids the way, they do the right thing.
They may need a set of clothes. A job. A decent meal. A roof over their head. A place to hide out from gang members. Sometimes, they just need someone to talk to. Burrell never turns anyone away.
“Wherever I go, people tell me, ‘Thank you Miss April, you rescued me, you fed me and kept me out of jail,’” she said.
Burrell never had it easy herself and still doesn’t. She was raising three daughters on her own by the age of 20 but earned her high school diploma at 23. She struggled to make ends meet, working in a group home, doing mentoring work, breeding pit bulls, selling candy, anything to earn her keep. But she never accepted federal assistance from welfare or food stamps, insisting on making it on her own every step of the way.
Burrell remains dedicated to restoring her city and giving Baltimore’s young people a sense of mission and purpose.
“We have 16,000 abandoned, vacant homes here in Baltimore,” she points out. “Do you know how many jobs we could make, how many opportunities we could create by tearing them down and rebuilding? That’s what we need to be doing. It’ll help turn all that negative energy into something positive.
“Because after Freddie Gray, youth need someone to guide them in the right direction, to help express themselves. You show kids the way, they do the right thing.”