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Retired corrections officer founded ‘Save Our Youth’

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

When Thomas Burke was a corrections officer at the Jackson prison, the courts and the Michigan Department of Corrections decided in 2004 to house youthful offenders as young as 14 in Cell Block 2 where Burke was assigned to work. Housed in general population with adult prisoners, the youngsters had separate meal, shower, and yard schedules and had to be escorted by officers anytime they were out of their cells to go to other locations at the correctional facility.

“Witnessing this, was heart wrenching and I was actually a little embarrassed to see this,” Burke says. “This is what prompted me to start ‘Save Our Youth.’ I still have a copy of the original program proposal that the warden endorsed.”

In the first year of the program – originally called “Stopping Time” – Burke recruited 19 correctional staff members to mentor youngsters whose parents were in prison.

“The program was closed down after its first year due to opposing correctional staff creating a hostile environment,” he says.

Undaunted, Burke persevered – and the nonprofit Save Our Youth, Inc., of Jackson program was introduced to the Jackson community in 2006, dedicated to maximizing the potential of all K-12 students through educational, informative, physical, cultural, collaborative, and innovative programs.

Since then, Save Our Youth has served more than 3,000 youngsters, and has worked with families, churches, other mentoring programs and local schools. Save Our Youth programs are held in the United Way building in Jackson and at St. John’s United Church of Christ, where Burke serves on the board.

The local United Way, Florence Crittenton Services, Jackson Community Foundation, Non Profit Network and Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Jackson County have all been instrumental with helping Burke to build Save Our Youth.

“The volunteers, donors, schools, churches and local businesses have made great contributions,” he says.

Burke even enlisted the help of Jackson native and former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who agreed to film a PSA supporting Save Our Youth that aired on JTV in Jackson.

“Tony was great to work with,” Burke says. “I asked him what did he want to say, and his response to me was, ‘You’re the coach, tell me what I should say.”

While Burke enjoys all the Save Our Youth activities he creates, he feels the most effective are the African-American quiz contest; chess tournament; trip to the Charles Wright African American museum in Detroit; after school programs; library card registration; YMCA program; Save Our Youth march to promote mentoring; and Save Our Youth Day at the Jackson County Fair.

The Summit Township resident enjoys mentoring youngsters and encourages others to do so.

“We’ve heard the slogan ‘Anyone can be a father but it takes a man to be a dad.’ Having a male presence in a child’s life exemplifies strength, courage and leadership,” he says. “A dominant or nurturing female can be just as effective – however, a man does represent a strong presence in a child’s life.

“As a mentor, I’m constantly learning about various issues dealing with the child’s family, school and peers,” he adds. “What’s rewarding is building a didactic relationship with a youngster that needs some guidance. It gives me a chance to give them my best – which in essence, helps me to be a better person as well. I think being a mentor is therapeutic.”

 In addition to his work as founder and director of Save Our Youth, Burke is a member of Mason Lodge 17; NAACP member; a volunteer mediator for the community dispute resolution services; a member of the Jackson Area Civil Rights Awareness Association; member of the Allegiance Health Board of Governance quality control committee; serves on the Community Action Agency Advisory Council; and is an ambassador for the Center For Family Health in Jackson.

Small wonder that last year the City of Jackson Human Relations Commission honored Burke with the Harold White Sr. Memorial Volunteer Award, named after a dedicated community organizer who died in 2001.

Burke’s interest in law enforcement and corrections dates back to his teens, when his criminal justice instructor at Henry Ford High School in Detroit shared stories about her former career as a correction officer.

“The stories always sounded rewarding as well as challenging,” Burke says.

With an original goal of attending law school, Burke felt working in law enforcement would give him a better understanding of criminal law, the area in which he wanted to practice.

The Detroit native, who attended classes at Wayne State University, worked as a Detroit police officer; then in 1985, he attended the Earle F. Demarse Corrections Academy located at the former Michigan School for the Blind campus in Lansing, before starting his career for the Michigan Department of Corrections at Jackson Prison.

He began his work there in central complex (4 Block, 8 Block and 12 Block), and moved to north complex in 1986, where he spent the last 13 years of career as a 2 Block officer in the new Charles Egeler Reception and Guidance Center (RGC).

In his prison work, Burke had a dual role as acting chaplain and correction officer.

“When I was working with the prisoners in the chaplain’s office, I wore my correctional uniform. The prisoners had to warm up to me when they came to see me for a religious consultation or other services – I had to help them to understand they needed to look beyond my uniform just like they wanted me to look beyond their uniform,” he says. “When I worked in my cell block, some of the prisoners would often refer to me as Chaplain Burke.”

Burke and his wife enjoy living in the Jackson area, where they raised their four children; and now have two grandchildren. In his leisure time, Burke collects stamps, key chains, and cameras.

For more information about Save Our Youth, visit the Facebook website at Save Our Youth, Inc. Jackson. To volunteer, call (517) 240-6134, e-mail stoney616@hotmail.com or “friend” Burke on his Facebook wall. Donations of checks or money orders, made out to Save Our Youth, can be mailed to P.O. Box 341, Jackson, MI 49204.

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