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For ECHO's Burr, achievements defy laws of time

BRANDON — Sharmaine Burr awoke on May 20 full of emotion.

As she prepared to commence with St. Leo University students in the Tampa Convention Center and accept her bachelors degree in social work, she reviewed a list of achievements that defy time:

• sitting on the National Association of Social Work board.

• earning the association's student of the year honors.

• volunteering 400 hours (25 a week) at a nonprofit (New Hope United Methodist Church) to meet a degree requirement.

• being recognized as Family Advocate of the Year in 2016.

• honored for community service by Black GIRLS (Gifted, Influential, Renowned, Ladies, Showcase) Rock Tampa Bay.

In between all of that, Burr, 40, continued to serve as the director of social services for the Emergency Care Help Organization. And she found time to be a wife to Trae and a mother to Shakira, 14, and Aaliyah, 15.

Clearly, she had a lot to take in.

"I reflected on my journey, the obstacles I had to face and the relationships with my cohort and professors," Burr said. "I did it not just for me and for my family, especially my two daughters, but for any woman or young girl who may be looking up to me or inspired to be like me.

"When my name was called, I just was thanking God for guiding and using me. I said to my husband we did it."

Burr graduated with high honors and will now turn her time to earning a masters. It might not have been possible if St. Leo's Tampa campus didn't add the social work program. Burr was one of 13 in the Tampa site's first cohort.

Yet those who knew her best believe she would have found a way. She always does even though there's only so much time in a given day.

"God gave me some extra hours," Burr said with a laugh this week. "I don't recommend everyone take my path because you have to have a strong support system. I give my husband and my girls all the props because they allowed me to do it."

All of her efforts are rooted in a faith-driven belief in service. She describes herself as a missionary and witnesses about the word in her free time. She lives by the mantra, "When we lose sight of our humanity, we lose sight of our purpose."

"Missionary and social work, they're not different beings," Burr said. "The church took care of the community before social workers came on the block."

Burr's role at ECHO allows her to keep humanity in sight. The nonprofit serves more than 300 families a month, including approximately 400 children, in 15 zip codes. People who walk through its doors find themselves struggling to overcome a sudden loss of income, underemployment, abuse or homelessness.

ECHO strives to provide a hand up and not just a hand out. Like everyone on the staff, Burr is driven by the opportunity to change the trajectory of people's lives.

"She is passionate about helping people provide for themselves," said ECHO executive director Eleanor Saunders. "She's passionate about connecting them with resources and putting them on a road to stability. She wants to help them overcome the chaos, overcome the crisis in their lives and find long-lasting stability."

Burr found her only challenges growing up in Tampa's Jackson Heights community. The daughter of a single mom in a family with four other siblings, she says her three brothers were in and out of jail. But Burr sought a different path and graduated from Tampa Bay Tech. Out of her siblings, she's the first to graduate and earn post secondary degrees. She holds three.

"When I think of her, she flows," said Michele Pruitt, ECHO's director of fund development and community relations. "Her mind is calculating and organizing things she's taking action. She knows how to delegate, she knows how to empower people."

Pruitt knows first hand about being empowered because Burr helped her transition through a challenging period that ultimately landed her a role at ECHO. It didn't involve instilling drive in Pruitt's heart, but reminding her it was there all along.

"She had expectations of me," Pruitt said, "and eventually, they no longer became her expectations, they became my own."

The expectations she holds for herself may be the highest. Her decision to serve on the National Association of Social Work board meant traveling the state to attend meetings, including a recent trip to Tallahassee to lobby legislators.

But it's all in a day's work as she continues to build a foundation to do more. She's happy St. Leo's MSW degree is an accelerated, one-year program, because she's going to need a few more extra hours from God.

She's going to need time to spend with her daughters as they go through high school. And she's going to need more time to help the people who seek out assistance from ECHO.

"I love being able to help people discover their purposes and desires for life," Burr said. "And I'm that living proof that you don't have to stay where you come from. No matter what your background or culture is, you can pack up and move.

"I empathize and sympathize with them," Burr added. "But then I push. I know they're sent to me for a purpose."

Contact Ernest Hooper at ehooper@tampabay.com. Follow him @hoop4you.

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