Bryaniesha Burks found herself in New Orleans five years ago – a constantly uprooted teenager living in an unstable and volatile household with a mentally ill parent.
“I had zero self-confidence,” she said. “I didn’t realize that I kept all that pain inside of me. Every day, I would go about things in a negative way. I was a lost soul.”
By 2011, over five years after the storm had hit, Burks said she noticed that she was surrounded by young people who were also struggling.
She said, “A lot of people were living in poverty. It makes you sad, angry and depressed. When what you see is people selling drugs, abandoned buildings and trash, it makes you a sad person. In that environment, negativity rules.”
Today, at 22 years old, Burks is a very different person. She graduated from the workforce and life skills training program at Liberty’s Kitchen in 2012, and she completely credits that program with giving her the skills and confidence that have enabled her to earn a promotion at her current job, manage her money so she can rent her own home and even eat healthier.
Liberty’s Kitchen offers holistic training to “opportunity youth” – those ages 16 to 24 who are not in school and not employed – teaching them the professionalism they’ll need to join the city’s booming hospitality industry, along with money management and other life skills. Its partnership with neighboring Whole Foods is just one example of how young people like Burks can connect with real jobs immediately upon graduation.
During her training, she began to realize she was capable of doing new, exciting things. Through Liberty’s Kitchen, she had the opportunity to fly to New York City and speak to an audience on the Food Network. It was her first time on a plane, her first time in New York City and certainly her first time on a well-recognized television network.
“(The leadership at Liberty’s Kitchen) believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself. I used to turn down opportunities all the time, and then wish I hadn’t. They taught me to be brave.”
Building on her success there, Burks can adapt to change more easily – which she admits she used to hate. Recently, she was offered the opportunity to move into a management position, which she said would have scared her before. She accepted the promotion and is excited about this new opportunity.
She partly attributes her newfound strength to the relationships she formed at Liberty’s Kitchen, and their simple, yet profound willingness to just listen. “Sometimes that’s all people need, is ears to listen. They care what goes on at home. I had a lot going on at the time, things I just kept inside. They listened. They didn’t judge me. They helped me. Their love woke me up a little bit.”
Burks wants to return the favor for others. “If I could make it through all that stuff, then maybe I could help someone the way Liberty’s Kitchen helped me.”
“I tell them, don’t be scared of the unknown – just do it,” she said. “I used to be very hesitant to do new things. I learned to take opportunities to broaden my horizons and not be in a box – because we don’t live in a box. We live in a big, vast world full of things to explore.”
Burks has even bigger dreams for her future in New Orleans. She likes to paint and draw, loves photography and dreams of opening an art gallery in downtown New Orleans and maybe one in New York City some day. Whatever the future holds, she said she knows now that she has kindness and strength on her side.
“I want to change the world for the better – starting with New Orleans.”