Friday, December 03, 1999

Hugs for healing

Nurse Wendy Burnette makes a career of caring for kids desperate for help

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Two things to know about Wendy Burnette: As a young girl, she often dreamed of flying, free and unencumbered. And she always knew she wanted to be a nurse.

        “My mother named me Wendy,” the 47-year-old West Chester resident says, “because she saw Peter Pan and thought I would be flying around and be the mother for lost boys. That was her vision for me.”

        As a young adult, Wendy envisioned being a flight nurse aboard a medical helicopter. But when her marriage failed, the single mother needed normal working hours.

Everyone has a story worth telling. At least, that's the theory. To test it, Tempo is throwing darts at the phone book. When a dart hits a name, a reporter dials the phone number and asks if someone in the home will be interviewed. Stories appear on Fridays.
        So she turned to what, for her, was a more practical goal: school nursing in a suburban district. To earn her credentials required taking a class focused on children with severe behavioral disability. That's what brought her 21/2 years ago to Beech Acres, a family services agency in Anderson Township.

        “I never felt so strongly that I belonged in a place,” she says.

        “All the kids I saw, I could see their whole history. I could see which ones had been sexually assaulted. I could see which ones had trust issues. I could see which ones carried their pain around. I felt that I had something to offer them. That I needed to offer them. An understanding, and a knowing.

        “These kids all have different needs. And I pull it out from where I've been.”

        Her parents split up when she was 2, and she lived with her alcoholic mother. “I took care of her more than she did of me,” Wendy says.

        She describes her mother as a self-absorbed woman so ensnared by alcohol that she failed to protect Wendy from a man who sexually abused her for three years, until she was 15.

        That's when Wendy left home. An overachiever, she had already earned her high school diploma. “And then essentially I was homeless until I was age 22,” she says.

        Living in California, she pursued a quest for healing.

        She hung out in communes. She engaged in primal scream therapy. She tuned in to Timothy Leary lectures. She studied every psychological theory she could find. She explored mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, the paranormal, ancestor worship. She marched in civil rights demonstrations.

        Eventually she returned to the Christian faith to which she'd been introduced years earlier by a minister's family. She came to realize she'd always had a friend in Jesus, she says.

        But her quest for healing has never really ended.

        Finally it brought her to Beech Acres.

        She sits at a picnic table outside the agency's Geiger Center, her shoulder-length auburn hair framing earnest eyes. She has a 10-year-old daughter, Robin, and a Doberman named Dancer.

        In a few minutes, nurse Wendy will dispense medication to students in the Ujima program, a partnership of Beech Acres and Talbert House aimed at helping children with severe behavioral problems succeed in school.

        The boys and girls range from age 6 to 16. A few live with their biological parents. But most are in foster or group homes. They are the problem kids many people would rather not deal with.

        She gives them medicine. Tends to their injuries. Handles mounds of paperwork. And more.

        “Giving hugs and giving comfort. That's what I'm here for,” she says.

        She's there for the child who chants that he wants to die. She's there to notice belt marks on a youngster's body, and to make sure that child does not return to an unsafe home.

        She's also there when someone opens up for the first time. It might be as simple as the words “Thank you, Wen,” after she gives medication.

        She says she can relate to the kids who want to pull themselves apart. She is comfortable being herself here.

        “All my pain and trials have been gifts to make me more able to be loving and intuitive.” Even the sexual abuse has given her a strength, she says.

        “It puts me in a position where I can understand others. Because now it's in the past. It's part of me, like a story. I know how to heal from something like that.”

        The children don't know. They need help.

        “Being yourself is a tool,” Wendy says. “If you're not genuine, if you can't get down to their level, they have no time for you. I'm sure they don't realize why they're comfortable around me, but they are.”

        Maybe, in her, they see hope. Hope that despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one can persevere and succeed.

        Or maybe they see someone who dreamed wild, fanciful dreams as a child.

        When she was married, she often told her husband, a skydiver, of her childhood dream of flying in the sky, free and untethered. He told her skydiving was difficult, scary; it made you sick, and caused injury. She believed him, for a time.

        Her marriage didn't survive, but the dream did.

        Wendy Burnette has jumped from airplanes 660 times since July 1990. She holds state skydiving records in Ohio, North Carolina and Arizona, and she has made two world-record attempts.

        Four years ago, while Wendy was organizing a record-setting jump in Ohio, her mother committed suicide. They had reconciled just days before. Wendy dedicated the jump to her mother's memory.

        Skydiving is everything she dreamed it would be.

        “There's a feeling of being free in the air, without anything around you, nothing touching you,” she says.

        “It's just a part of me. I've always wanted to fly free.”


        Beech Acres is a non-profit agency that offers a variety of programs for children and families in Greater Cincinnati.

        The agency's support groups cater to single parents, stepfamilies, children whose parents are divorced, and divorced or divorcing families. Mediation is available to assist families in working out problems of divorce, stepfamily conflict or problems between parents and teens.

        The Beech Acres Family Center offers respite, counseling and a ParentSource Info Line to help parents answer everyday questions.

        The agency also collaborates with other agencies in Every Child Succeeds, a program for first-time mothers that provides support from before a baby's birth until age 3.

        Other agency programs target children with intensive needs, including those with severe behavioral problems, and those with problems due to abuse or neglect.

        Mentoring and family and individual counseling are available at agency locations throughout Greater Cincinnati.

        For more information about programs, call 231-6630.


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