Founder and Executive Director
Sheila Burton, founder and executive director of Join Hands, was destined to serve the people of East St. Louis. The genuine humility and love she conveys when you meet her, enable you to see why. Sheila’s desire to confront injustice developed at an early age and blossomed while she was a student at the University of Notre Dame. Upon graduating, she spent a year in New York City living with a community that worked among those living in poverty and dire circumstances. This experience along with hours of contemplative prayer, led Sheila to pursue her law degree at the University of Illinois so she could advocate for those on the periphery of society. As an idealistic, young legal aid lawyer at Land of Lincoln in East St. Louis, she quickly became an influential voice, especially in the education arena.
Soon after Sheila’s arrival to East St. Louis in 1988, Sr. Julia Huiskamp asked her to mentor a 10-year-old girl who had lost her mother to gun violence at the age of two. Sheila fell in love with this little girl and the community, and quickly recognized the value of human relationships in bringing about positive change for those trapped in intergenerational poverty. She invited her friends to become mentors, including her husband Mike (then boyfriend), and founded Join Hands in 1990. For the first 25 years, it was literally Sheila, Mike, and a couple hundred of their closest friends and donors who kept it going. By 2016, it became clear, it was time to give Join Hands her full-time attention. Sheila created the Ubuntu Center for Peace as a home for Join Hands and the families served by it, hired employees, and sought grants and additional funding to allow programs to grow. Her transformational leadership led to youth programming, additional community services at the Ubuntu Center, and the “Dream Path” program, which now includes the Dream Path Teen Center. Her simple approach of building relationships, promoting education and opportunity, and “seeing others as God sees them,” has become a model of success.
For Sheila, Join Hands isn’t just her life’s work, it is a continual faith journey focused on helping families escape poverty, one child, one family at a time. It is also the result of recognizing potential where others do not, and trusting in the generosity of so many who have made this work possible. “Nothing at Join Hands occurs by chance,” she says. “There have been too many times when we didn’t know how we’d continue our work, and then something happens that enables us to go on. It is a beautiful thing.” Sheila is quick to acknowledge that her husband Mike and their three children have been instrumental in making this all possible. They are her rock and sustaining force. As for her East St. Louis family, Sheila is nothing short of a hero. She has saved lives, changed perspectives, and inspired a mission of hope for generations to come.