TRAVERSE CITY — Amy Burk had an idyllic childhood in the rural outskirts of Flushing, where she lived next door to her grandparents’ dairy farm.
But at 18, Burk’s life fell apart when her parents divorced, which caused her to cut short her college career. At 20, after a year of community college, she married a U.S. Marine and moved to a military base in North Carolina. At 21, she had twins — the first of the couple's four children.
Now Burk, of Mancelona, is devoted to removing barriers that prevent kids from finishing school, and to preparing them for future education. She is executive director of Communities In Schools of Mancelona, and oversees prevention and intervention services to students and families with a primary goal of increasing graduation rates in Mancelona.
“We typically say we’ll do what it takes,” from providing school supplies, tutoring and bully prevention assemblies to offering warm winter clothing, recreation and enrichment opportunities, said Burk, 43.
The self-described "small-town country girl" leads by example. She faced her own barriers to education but managed to go back to college when her third child was 2, shortly after her husband’s tour of duty ended and the couple moved to Traverse City.
“I still had that education itch in me,” said Burk, who in 1997 earned an associate degree in applied science from Northwestern Michigan College. “I knew the girls would grow up and I would be out seeking a job. I wanted to make sure I was a good candidate for whatever job came up.”
That job came along the next year at the Mancelona Family Center, a sort of one-stop shop for Mancelona area social services. Agencies and services include a health department dental clinic, a women’s resource center, child and adolescent health services, child and family services, and Catholic human services.
Burk was administrative assistant for the center and primarily worked with Community Resource Development, whose programs included the nonprofit Communities In Schools of Mancelona. That program is part of the national Communities In Schools network, one of the country’s leading dropout organizations.
"That was the one that intrigued me because of its mission to work with students and get them assistance to help with things like not being able to see the board or a tooth that aches, so they could focus on school,” she said.
The program connects the community with schools by bringing in community partners and placing a staff person in each school.
Over the next 10 years, Burk added to her skill set with hands-on work, including helping to apply for funding grants for an after-school program. And in 2009, seven years after giving birth to her fourth child, she was named director of Communities in Schools in Mancelona, which would become its own entity.
Burk could have rested on her laurels, having attained the prominent position with only a two-year degree. Instead, she decided to return to college to continue her education in business administration, with a focus on health care administration.
“There was still something in me that said, ‘You need to go back and get your bachelor’s degree because you can,’” said Burk, who juggled online coursework at Davenport University with full-time work and family life and graduated with highest honors in December 2012. “How can I present myself as someone who promotes education otherwise? You have to walk the walk if you talk the talk.”
Friend and admirer Alison Metiva calls Burk a role model for her family and the community.
“She’s balancing lots of things: her job, volunteering and four children,” said Metiva, director of community relations for the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, where Burk is on the board of directors. “Women want to be at their best for everything they’re involved in and I think she’s a real example of someone who’s always at their best.
“The thing that I found particularly inspiring about Amy was her going back to school to get her bachelor’s degree. I know how hard it is for someone just to go back and do that. I think she thought about setting an example for her kids and thought it was important for her to do that,” Metiva said.
Burk, who even made time to take up running recently, scoffs at the idea of herself as “superwoman” and said she couldn’t have achieved what she has without the support of her family, particularly husband Mark, a machinist, and mom Susan Hobson, of Fife Lake.
“It really is a family partnership,” said Burk, a recent nominee for the Detroit Pistons’ Game Changer of the Year award given to “everyday people making a difference within their communities” through service, leadership and volunteerism. “That’s the way I was raised. Families take care of each other.”
She credits her late father, Tim Shannon, for some of her drive. Shannon was in a serious car accident when Burk was 5 and spent nearly a year in the hospital.
“They told him he would never walk, and he walked,” Burk said. “For 30 years he lived a full life despite what they told him. His left arm was paralyzed but he did not sit and mope because of his disability. Give him a challenge and he’d prove you wrong."
As for her own challenges, Burk recently began a master’s degree program in science administration, with a focus on leadership.
"There's something about being able to give back to my community," she said. "Mancelona is where I live. There would have to be something really dynamite to pull me away."
Athena nominees sought TRAVERSE CITY -- The Record-Eagle will feature a story each month in cooperation with Athena Grand Traverse that profiles someone who embodies the qualities the Athena awards program was founded to reward. The stories document some of the extraordinary people in the Grand Traverse region who've worked to blaze trails for women in leadership. They will publish on the last Monday of each month and aim to encourage readers to think of people in their own lives who embody the qualities sought by the Athena committee. Athena Grand Traverse, part of a larger international awards program, bestows one Athena award each spring to someone in the region who has made paths for women to follow. The 19 past award recipients come from all walks of life, from corporate executives to dedicated volunteers. The only requirement is that the award winner embody the seven characteristics of the group's leadership model: authentic self, celebration and joy, collaboration, courageous acts, fierce advocacy, giving back, and learning and relationships. "Essentially, all Athenas encompass those traits," said Rachel Jarosz, a member of the group's selection committee. Between now and April 1, the committee wants nominations for people who live or work in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska or Leelanau counties and embody the characteristics of an Athena. The 20th Athena award will be announced May 8. If there's a person worthy of Athena consideration, please go to www.athenagrandtraverse.com/nomination and tell the committee why that person deserves recognition.