FAIRMONT, W.Va. (WBOY) — “The right place at the right time”—that’s how JoDonna Burdoff describes her life.
Born to a single mother, JoDonna was instead raised by a young couple from the time she was around three years old. Growing up, JoDonna was always seen as the “misbehaving” or “bad kid” in school, always getting paddlings. However, her 3rd-grade teacher changed JoDonna’s life forever.
“She never asked what was wrong with me, she asked what happened to me,” Burdoff said.
JoDonna noted she didn’t receive any paddlings that year and remembered that teacher forever.
The Remarkable Women candidate graduated from Fairmont State University, after balancing work, school, being the Fairmont State Falcon and other things. But not without other struggles, coming back to her saying, “the right place at the right time.”
“A friend of my parents asked ‘Where are you living?’ I said, ‘Probably in a dorm’. He said, ‘You know, we put a trailer down, and her sister went to school there, at Fairmont State too. I’ll put them in one room in bunks, and I’ll give you this other room, $90 a month.’ Who else does that happen to?” Burdoff said.
After graduating college, she became a substitute teacher, hoping to one day find a full-time teaching position in social studies.
“I get a call that says ‘We have a job for you’, and I said ‘Oh, OK’,” Burdoff recalled. “They said it’s one student, and I remember they said ‘This boy is autistic’. Just one teacher in an all-special-ed school. The school was completely special ed. I thought they said ‘artistic.'”
After clearing the mix-up, she adapted to the way of life that was very new to her.
“I got my on-the-job masters in autism,” Burdoff said. “There was one book in the library on autism. There was nowhere, anything, this was before the internet. There was no way to find any information.”
JoDonna started getting her master’s degree from West Virginia University while raising three kids, grieving the loss of her parents, raising her siblings, filing for divorce, and still working full time.
She also changed jobs, switching to research and coordination for kids with autism at Marshall University for 7 years.
Then, Marion County, where she started her career, gave her a call.
“Marion County Board of Ed decided that they needed a person in charge at the county office that just worked with individuals with autism, and this was in 2002 when people were doing that. They were actually the first county to do that in West Virginia,” Burdoff said.
That’s when the Disability Action Center reached out to her, which was gracious enough to let us do the interview here and film the students during their STEM lesson.
She worked for the BOE for seven years, and then a bigger opportunity came: she was asked to do the same job, but for the whole state of West Virginia.
“It was all about autism awareness. I’m kind of over the awareness. We know it’s out there. Can we know what to do about it?” Burdoff said.
Eventually, her health caught up with her.
“He found a very rare form of cancer, multiple myeloma,” Burdoff remembered. “And it saved my life just getting it that early.”
The results weren’t good.
“If it comes back less than 10%, we’ll treat it with chemo. More than 10%, and you have to have a complete bone marrow transplant. I was at 60% of my plasma is cancer,” Burdoff said.
Circling back to “the right place at the right time,” JoDonna’s son had a friend in medical school at John Hopkins University.
“He called his best friend, and he said ‘We’ve got the world-renowned multiple myeloma specialists right here. Get her down here. Come stay with me.’ Again, who’s more blessed than me? Who does that happen to?” Burdoff said.
After a clinical trial, support from her partner, a bone marrow transplant, and lots of treatment, she is currently not receiving treatment.
In the middle of her struggles, she also was able to get married to her partner, Debbie, after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriages in 2015, thanks to her favorite phrase “right place at the right time” and a friend within the court system.
“Blessed beyond measure,” Burdoff said about the situation.
What’s JoDonna up to these days? Working with kids in the state’s correctional facilities.
“These are kids from all walks of life, and I always say, the only thing that they have in common, they have one thing in common: At least one adult messed up in their life,” Burdoff said.
After going through every juvenile detention center in the state of West Virginia, JoDonna is now helping teach jails and prisons in the state of West Virginia PBIS—Positive Behavior Interventions and Support—to help inmates overcome the challenges they have faced in life.
“I’m probably one of the most blessed people you’ll ever meet,” Burdoff said.