By LAURIE KAVENAUGH - Style Editor
Posted: 01/29/2009 12:00:00 AM PST
"I love Christmas," she said, looking around the room that is filled with twinkle lights and decorations. "The colors, the feeling it gives you, and it's good for the kids."
The "kids" she refers to are three foster teens Burson provides a home for. So far, she's had nine foster children. Christmas, explains Burson, is something some of them didn't have in their own homes.
It sounds like a busy life for someone who has seven children of her own. Two sons, Russell, 19 and Westley, 17, still live with her. But Burson lives with bigger challenges than managing a house with teenagers.
She moved to Oroville in September 2002, when her second marriage ended and she was alone with her two boys in St. Louis, Mo.
Originally from Sacramento, she followed a friend's advice, packed her van and came west. A legal secretary by profession, she found work in Chico.
Her new life was working fine until she was in a car accident, rear-ended while sitting at a stoplight at Highway 99 and Estates Drive. Her van was totaled. Among the damage Burson suffered was a head injury, leading to short term memory loss and what's called unilateral spatial neglect. That means her right eye doesn't properly convey sight messages to her brain. The accident led to permanent disability and the loss of her job.
"It was devastating to me. This was like a brick wall," she said.
Through speech therapy sessions, Burson learned about a cognitive skills course taught by Myra Lerch at Butte College. For Burson, it was a step past that brick wall.
"I was not going to sit and stare at the walls. I needed to raise my boys," she said.
Lerch's course in 2006 helped Burson prepare to take classes by learning how to work around her brain impairments. She was introduced to the Kurzweil education system.
"What this program does is scan in a book, then highlights each word. It forces me to read," she said. Books can be scanned and saved to disc, and to an MP3 program so Burson can also hear the words. "I use the Kurzweil at school and read everything in advance," she explained.
Burson will finish Butte in another three semesters. She plans to transfer to Chico State University with majors in English and history and focus on becoming a teacher.
School for Burson was a way to find herself again. "I lost my self-confidence when the accident happened," she said. "I was afraid and tried to cover it up. I had changed. I didn't see it but my friends did."
At Butte the 58-year-old student has maintained a perfect grade point average and was nominated to Phi Theta Kappa, an honor society that has a busy, involved chapter at Butte.
"That's when the fun really started," she laughed.
She was encouraged by instructor Roger Ekins to volunteer on the school's literary magazine. She edited it in fall 2007 and again in fall 2008. "We made 300 copies the first year and they were gone in two hours. We had 500 copies this year and there are 50 left," she said.
Her love of books brought her to coordinate a book drive last summer through Betterworld Books that put more than 4,500 donated books into libraries affected by Hurricane Katrina.
She has worked with Phi Theta Kappa in its annual Make a Difference Day activities that impact several counties and even got her foster teens involved.
Burson was named Distinguished Chapter Member of the Year last April at the Phi Theta Kappa convention in Philadelphia. The honor was a surprise, but also a confirmation for Burson that her life plan is on track and her injuries can be overcome.
"I don't mind getting old," she said. "I don't mind getting heavy or losing my hair, but I didn't want to lose my mind."
Butte College is back in session this week and Burson is taking algebra, Latin and government along with her Phi Theta Kappa activities, including running for the office of vice president for the Nevada-California region this spring.
In a nutshell -
Name: Sheila Burson
Family: Seven children; still at home Russell, 19 and Westley, 17.
Priorities: Raising her family, foster parenting and completing her education.
Kudos: Named Phi Theta Kappa's Distinguished Chapter Member of the Year at the April 2008 convention in Philadelphia.
Laurie Kavenaugh can be reached at 896-7765 or firstname.lastname@example.org.