Gastonia’s Shaaron Funderburk estimates she’s helped rehabilitate more than 750 female addicts in the past 11 years through her nonprofit Off the Streets program, with an 88 percent success rate.
Her program provides transitional housing, counseling and helps women navigate detox. She helps them learn life and relationship skills and build the self-esteem they need to enter or re-enter the workforce.
Yet her reaction to the news that L’Oréal Paris chose her as one of 10 U.S. Women of Worth for her community efforts – with a $10,000 prize – is one of stark humility.
“I love the fact that they’re taking a chance on somebody like me,” she said. “I’m still not sure what it’s like to be a woman of worth. I’ve never really considered myself that. I’ve just always considered myself a woman with a purpose.”
Funderburk will join the nine other winners in New York City on Dec. 2 for an evening in their honor. If she’s chosen the national winner in voting at womenofworth.com through Nov. 21, she’ll get another $25,000 for Off the Streets. Readers can also vote for her on Nov. 19, when she’ll be featured on the L’Oréal Paris Facebook (L'Oréal Paris) and Twitter (@LOrealParisUSA) channels by liking or sharing the Facebook post, or retweeting the Twitter post during the 24-hour period.
“The 2014 Women of Worth honorees are heroic, fearless and true change-makers who deserve to be celebrated, and their stories elevated, to inspire more women to make a difference in the lives of others,” said L’Oréal Paris President Karen Fondu.
Funderburk said the $10,000 will help the program stay open a little longer, and that some of the money will go toward work clothes and shoes to help women at OTS get jobs. “I think it’s a beautiful way that they’re helping to make a difference in my community.”
Her commitment to helping addicts is one of empathy – a past life of careless self-destruction that led to her addiction to crack.
She said she started getting into trouble at age 11, 40 years ago. “I started lying, staying out late, stealing, misbehaving in school, a lot of misbehavior that comes along before the drug usage. A lot of that ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude was there, so by the time drugs came onto the scene it just made sense because I didn’t care anymore.”
Young Shaaron (pronounced “SHAY-run”) became an expert at hiding from herself and others. “My street name was Sheila, because I didn’t want my mom to find out what I was doing,” she said.
Multiple arrests proved no deterrent. “Jail didn’t do it. I got used to going to jail. The rock bottom part came when I burned all the bridges with my family and friends. I had nowhere to eat, nowhere to sleep, nowhere to live. I stood on the curb across the street from my mother’s and asked myself, ‘Could it be the drugs?’ ”
Funderburk said she got clean with the help of a mentor, Jamie Black, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla. “She helped me learn how to live without using drugs. She taught me that I was somebody; she taught me that I could live, I could be kind, I could dream, I could have purpose. … I’ve been clean for 20 years.”
Before opening Off the Streets, Funderburk would drive through neighborhoods and offer condoms to prostitutes, even providing meals and opening her home to them. She remembers the first woman she took in, almost 17 years ago.
“She had HIV. She was cold and sick, and she wasn’t using her medicine correctly. … She’s dead now.” Barbara Wallace’s passing “motivated me to open my house permanently,” she said.
Funderburk oversees Off the Street’s transitional house, with her longtime friend Marcia serving as manager. When Funderburk was pregnant and had a relapse, Marcia was there. When Marcia relapsed years later, Funderburk was there.
Their challenges are immense. The organization, funded entirely by grants and donations, consists of “me, four volunteers and 12 board members” – including people who help with transportation, cleaning and yard work.
Asked what the annual operating budget is, she laughed and said, “it’s rarely met.” (She said that with a budget of $181,000, she hasn’t had a salary during the organization’s 11 years.) Besides the perpetual funding challenge, she said OTS’s current need is twin bed linens.
Funderburk emphasized that she’s not running a homeless shelter. She said she has to be selective about the women she chooses to help.
“Because I’ve been on the street, I know desperation when I see it. If I hear it in your voice and I feel it in my spirit, I know you’re ready.
“I’ve got a reputation in my little town. If you ask my ladies, they’ll tell you I don’t play. I’ve got the biggest heart in the world, but I ain’t got time for nonsense. They call me the queen of tough love.”