Fred Burns was in Mississippi’s foster care system from the age of 12 to 15, bouncing from homes in Prentiss, Canton, Brandon, Natchez and Jackson before he was eventually adopted by his aunt. That rough start could have been the prelude to a life of bad decisions and wrong paths. But, it wasn’t.
Burns is an honor student at Jackson State University, where he’s a senior majoring in computer engineering and uses his spare time to encourage other youth in numerous states that an unfortunate past doesn’t have to dictate their future.
“It’s about where you’re going. Accept the things you can’t change, but what you can change, make sure you do,” says Burns, a Jackson native.
During his stint in foster care, Burns was placed on one of the campuses of Youth Villages, a private, nonprofit organization that offers programs and services to children and their families. Among those services are foster care and adoption, mentoring and a transitional living program for young adults who age out of foster care.
Youth Villages’ had such a positive impact on Burns that now he travels across the country to talk about his experience.
“At the time, I felt like no one believed in me and that I was just a lost child,” Burns says, referring to his early years in foster care. “Now, I have great mentors and great friends.”
Katja Russell, executive director of Youth Villages Mississippi, says it’s been a privilege working with Burns.
“We are so proud of him and look forward to seeing what successes his future holds,” Russell says.
Burns transferred from Mississippi State University to JSU two years ago, and he said JSU’s faculty and staff also have become a support system for him.
“I love being at Jackson State. The culture is different. I like that you’re able to build personal relationships. Professors know you by name, and not by number,” Burns says.
JSU Campus Pastor El McGowan, who considers himself a mentor to Burns, says he’s impressed with the student’s growth and ability to take correction.
“I see his desire to succeed and to give back. He’s a coach for at-risk students. I see in him a hunger and thirst for a male role model. Once he sees what that looks like, he knows he’s supposed to model it for others,” McGowan says.
Says Burns: “When people start believing in you, you start believing in yourself. Encouragement is contagious.”
Burns was recently sharing his story with an audience at the Jackson Country Club. Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson was among those listening. Frazier was moved by the young man’s poise and confidence.
“A lot of times when you see kids who have been neglected, you don’t see much of a future for them. He inspired so many people that night with his story,” Frazier says.
Burns was apart from his siblings for years, but he’s never considered himself a lost cause. He graduated at the top of his class at Wingfield High with a 4.25 GPA on a 4.0 scale. He had scholarship offers from a number of schools, including JSU and MSU.
“Growing up in foster care, you get separated from your siblings. It makes you feel like you’re in this world alone,” Burns says. “Education has always been my priority. Once I was in a stable home, my aunt provided every tool I needed to be successful in school. It was up to me to utilize those resources,” Burns says.
“When those opportunities present themselves, you have to put yourself in a position to obtain them. I’m strictly speaking about education,” says Burns.
Professional doors also have opened for Burns while matriculating at JSU. He has interned at Miller Transporters, Inc., and C Spire Wireless’ corporate office in the software development unit.
That’s in addition to his speaking engagements in locations that include Hollywood, Calif.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Washington, D.C.
“I also do a lot of talking through social media, sending constant messages of encouragement,” Burns says. “I understand that it’s not about me anymore. It’s not about what I have been through in my life. It’s about going back and sharing what I have been through and inspiring others that they can make it. One of my main focuses is toward helping my peers forgive their parents and rebuild their relationships.”
Burns gives back in other ways. He says when he was homeless, Stewpot Community Services made sure we received a “good Christmas and Thanksgiving.”
“Now, I return back to Stewpot and get together with a group of people. We were able to adopt 10 families for Thanksgiving,” Burns says. “In a separate event, we were able to sponsor 10 children for Christmas, using my positive influence to bring people together for a great cause. God has put me in a position to where I can now use my influence to get people to do for others what others have done for me.”