Striking It Rich: Formerly Homeless Women Scratches Million Dollar Ticket.

Story and Art by Jen Catalano

Virginia “Jini” Burke lives a life of strict routine. She goes to work. She goes to her AA meetings. She comes home. Even her gambling is done with perfect regularity. Every week, she buys five two dollar scratch tickets at a local Mobil. She lives for routine. It’s helped her out of the rough places she’s been in her life.

One Friday in August, Burke was forced to change her routine, and it made all the difference. The gas station she goes to each week to buy scratch tickets was out of the game she usually plays. Rather than giving up on the lottery for a week, Burke decided on a whim to keep playing. She bypassed the rows of five dollar tickets and went straight for the big leagues, purchasing one ten dollar 800 Millions scratch card.

Burke won a million dollars on that scratch card.

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It’s an event that could change a person’s life forever, usually only imagined in childish games and hypothetical scenarios. However, Burke has not given into the temptation of major lifestyle change and a luxurious future. She was still answering her home telephone when I called for an interview. Though she’s been plagued by questions from newspapers and television stations alike since winning her million, she was still more than happy to share her story.

Burke, when asked about her age, will answer nothing more specific than “in my 50s”. She is single, living in a modest home in Wareham, and driving a modest car. Before winning on the ticket, she’d just picked up a second job, and her reliance on her credit card for groceries and utilities was beginning to put her into debt. In all of the photos I’ve seen of her, Burke, with her short graying hair and smile wrinkles framing the lenses of her glassed eyes, and a wardrobe of Red Sox merchandise, seems to be a run-of-the-mill Massachusetts resident.

But this strongly accented Massachusetts local has a roughness in her voice, a souvenir from a harsh past. Years of drug and alcohol abuse have made Burke the woman she is today.

She grew up in Quincy, and despite what she calls a “fantastic” pair of parents (her mother died in 1971, her father in 1991), she began drinking at age 7. By the time she approached her 14th birthday, Burke was addicted to heroin. She left home to live on the streets and feed her habits. Burke’s face knows hard cold nights pressed against the heating grates at the Masonic Temple. She knows what it’s like never to have your own place. She was in and out of treatment, checking into detox in the winter and making herself subject to harsh withdrawal symptoms simply to escape the cold.

She spent over 20 years of her life as an intravenous drug user. It took being sent to jail for her drug use (first at MCI Framingham, then a halfway house) for Burke to realize the gravity of her situation, and with the help of the system, she struggled her way into a clean, drug and alcohol free life.

While one might worry that winning a million dollars from the lottery might bring a resurgence of old habits, Burke is dedicated not only to keeping herself clean, as she has been for 19 years, but also to helping others fight drug addiction. She works at High Point Women’s Addiction Treatment Center in New Bedford as a substance abuse counselor, and she loves her job. She even went into work the day after she won on the scratch ticket, seeing no reason to change her routine just because she obtained a little money. She’s worked there since 1994, and she loves giving the recovering addicts someone who can relate to their struggles.

“I know that life can get better. I used longer than some of these kids have been on the face of the planet, and I got out of it”, she says. “Anyone can do it if they really try to do it.”

Burke plans to keep on working at her job, despite her winnings, and plans on doing all she can to better herself and to give recovering addicts the help they need. She’s obtained a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from Curry College, and as she tells me this fact, she laughs a little and says “if you can believe it, that I would be able to get a master’s degree in criminal justice, being a convicted felon”. She plans on taking it even further, enrolling in law classes to enhance her degree.

As for the money she won in the lottery, she’s still figuring out what to do with it. She’s accepted 20 year payments instead of a lump sum, and has just hired a lawyer to help her out. Aside from a front row ticket to see the Red Sox play, she doesn’t plan on making any luxurious purchases with the newfound dough, preferring smaller, practical ways to spend her money. She’s paid off her credit card bills, and she’s purchased a new bed.

Burke stated, “I’m a very simple person. I don’t want for much.”

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