In This Special Fathers Network podcast, David Hirsch talks to special father and ordained minister, Joe Butler. Joe and his wife Jen are parents of three children, Clara, Hanna and Micah, who has multiple special needs. We’ll hear the story of Joe and Jen, how they found a new life in Arkansas with their family and how having a child with special needs has improved and enriched their lives. Joe and Jen formed Ability Tree, a not for profit organization that helps parents of special needs kids. Ability tree provides a safe nurturing environment for special needs kids so parents can get a badly needed rest.
Dad To Dad 28 – How Minister and Special Father Joe Butler formed Ability Tree
Tom Couch: This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. The Special |Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for fathers to support fathers.
Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydads.org.
David Hirsch: Hi, I’m David Hirsch. This is the Special Fathers Network podcast. Stories of fathers helping fathers and
Tom Couch: I’m Tom Couch. Today David talks to special father and ordained minister, Joe Butler, Joe, and his wife. Jen are parents of three children, Clara Hannah and Micah who has multiple special needs.
Joe Butler: Mike has become the biggest blessing. God has given us a new perspective on life and living and what. What that really means?
Tom Couch: Well, here’s the story of Joe and Jen and how they found a new life in Arkansas with their family. And also how having a child with special needs has improved and enriched their lives.
Joe Butler: You know, Mike has a, is a gift from God. We’re so thankful that God has given him to us. He laughs easy, loves easy, cries, easy, and he doesn’t hold a grudge.
Tom Couch: Joe and Jen formed ability tree, a not for profit organization that addresses one of the prime problems of families with special needs kids.
Joe Butler: The number one need is just the need for respite. For that temporary rest ability tree provides a safe, nurturing environment for special needs kids. So parents can get a badly needed rest. We’re kind of like a faith based boys and girls club for families and kids with special needs.
Tom Couch: It’s a compelling conversation with an inspirational dad, Joe Butler on this Special Father’s Network podcast. Here’s David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Being a father is very important to me. I’ve started a number of charitable organizations. Designed to increase the role of fathers. One of them, the special fathers network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers, raising children with special needs.
We’ve been interviewing some exceptional fathers of special needs kids, and we want to share their stories with you.
Joe Butler: So let’s get to it. Here’s David Hirsch’s interview with special father Joe Butler.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with my friend, Joe Butler of asylum Springs, Arkansas, a father of three, an ordained minister and cofounder of ability tree not-for-profit that comes alongside families impacted by disability, through recreation, education, support, and training.
Also known as rest R E S T Joe. Thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Joe Butler: My pleasure, David, it’s great to talk with you.
David Hirsch: You and your wife, Jan have been married for 21 years and other proud parents of three children, Clara 15 Hannah 20 and middle child, Micah 17, who has multiple special needs.
Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family, including any siblings.
Joe Butler: I grew up in South Florida, uh, in a town called Jupiter. And it is out of this world. Uh, it’s in Northern Palm beach County on the Atlantic ocean. And so I grew up, um, you know, playing outside and join the ocean and the beach and fishing.
And, uh, one thing that’s interesting is my parents fostered 27 children growing up. My mom had me when she was 30, which was older at that time. Uh, I was born in 1973, so they didn’t think they could have children. They ended up having me and I’ve got two adopted siblings, but grew up with a house full of foster siblings as well.
David Hirsch: So out of curiosity, that’s very unusual. Where would you fall on the pecking order? There was 27 of you, uh, age wise.
Joe Butler: Um, I would fall pretty low on the scale, uh, is one of the youngest. I remember, you know, I was very young, obviously w when my parents had me, they decided to adopt two of the foster children, but, uh, they didn’t foster as much after that.
So I have memories. I have pictures obviously growing up in and having a house for, they had nine foster kids at one time. So not 27 at the whole time, but over a span of a few years.
David Hirsch: So part of your growing up was part of not only having two adopted siblings, but there were more. Uh, at one point in time earlier on when you were quite young?
Joe Butler: Yes.
David Hirsch: Okay. Well, that seems like a very exciting journey. Um, so tell me something about your, um, siblings, uh, two adopted siblings.
Joe Butler: Paul. And Karen were biological brother and sister, and came from a very rough home life. They actually had been abandoned and found an, a, a home in West Palm beach. Uh, there were two and four round about that age when my parents fostered them and ended up adopting them.
And because of their early. The circumstances and the way they were treated, it affected the rest of their life. And, um, they’ve had some great challenges because of that.
David Hirsch: And you’ve kept in contact with them or not so much. So
Joe Butler: I’ve kept in contact with my brother from time to time. He’s made some choices as an adult that have been detrimental to him.
But, um, at this point in his life, he seems to be doing better. And unfortunately, as an adult lost touch with my sister, my dad heard from her a few years ago, but, um, haven’t kept that relationship with them.
David Hirsch: Fair enough. So, uh, describe your relationship with your
Joe Butler: dad. My dad and I. It’s a difficult relationship to explain in ways my dad is not a great talker.
He doesn’t use a lot of words. Doesn’t express his feelings very well to me, but we grew up in a playing sports together, fishing activities, you know, going snorkeling he’d he’d rent a boat and we’d go out on a boat and, and go snorkeling down in the keys. My dad then pretty large family. He was the oldest and had a lot of responsibility.
And, um, I think in his generation, it was just, it was different than, than, um, my generation. And, um, he was in the Navy, he went through seal training and, you know, he was a, a man’s man, uh, a, a tough guy. And, um, you know, there, there wasn’t a lot of. Physical love expressed as, as a child. I remember him as a bigger than life figure and a lot of ways, one of my fondest memories as a child in our house that we grew up and for eight years we had a swimming pool and I mentioned my dad was in the Navy and went through seal training and was able to hold his breath for a long time.
And. So I remember he would, he would be in the pool with me and my brother and sister, and he’d go to the bottom of the pool and hold his breath. I remember going down there and sitting on his back and, you know, probably going down three, four or five times and having to catch my breath. And he was still down at the bottom.
And then he had surface, I don’t doubt that my dad. Love me growing up and still loves me. And, and, um, he just had a difficult time expressing it in words.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Well, I think that’s, like you said, it’s a different generation men. Weren’t gonna wear their feelings on their sleeve and you know, it was just more accepted.
Right. That if you were provider, you know, you were fulfilling your responsibility. And today I think that the expectations on fatherhood are much greater and there’s some pros and cons. It’s not all positive. It’s not all negative. So thanks for sharing. Um, out of curiosity, is there a lesson, um, or something that you took away or taken away from your dad is something that you’ve tried to emulate in your own parenting?
Joe Butler: No. My dad was always a hard worker. He, he saved money. He was a good manager of money. Uh, he provided for his family. He started his own business and he’s always, even when I went through some difficult times in my teen years, it’s a very difficult time with addiction and things. He would always, um, he would be there to talk with me to point me in the right direction.
Even though he had a difficult time communicating on a regular basis when he needed to at crucial times, he would. And that’s helped me to, to focus not only on the big issues, but might try to be a regular communicator and speak into my children’s lives and just everyday decisions and, and help teach them how to make good decisions.
David Hirsch: Yeah, that’s fabulous. I think that. When I think about the situation you’ve described, I think about role models, right? And we can all learn from role models, the good things and the bad things. And you want to emulate those good role models and, you know, be more like them. And then, you know, if you’ve had an experience, which isn’t entirely positive, you know, you can learn vicariously, right?
So you don’t do the same things, right. In your case, it’s making a better effort to communicate, you know, your family know how you feel and you know, how you go about. You know, dealing with issues, right. So it’s not as opaque. Right. You’re being more transparent and authentic, I guess, is what I think about it.
Joe Butler: agree.
David Hirsch: Okay. So let’s talk about a school a little bit. You have a BA in Bible from university of Valley forge and an MBA in disability studies from California Baptist university, and you’re ordained minister through assemblies of God. So when you finished your education, what were you thinking about as far as what your career path was going to be.
Joe Butler: Yeah. So, um, David, it was, it was a little unforeseen. When I first went back to school, I went back to school at the age of 27. Um, my wife and I had been married at that 0.3 years. We moved onto the campus of the university of Valley forge in the family housing with our two year old Hannah and Micah was born the week that we moved into family housing and closed on our house in New Jersey.
University of Valley forge is in Pennsylvania. You know, just, just really felt a, a life mission or a calling from God to full time vocational ministry. And now just really develop that sense of calling in, in the previous two years or so as youth leaders and as interim youth pastors at our home church in New Jersey.
And so, um, We took a step of faith, uh, to pursue full time vocational ministry and sort our house and sold half our possessions and moved into cramped campus housing and, uh, on the university of Valley forge. And it was the best, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. It was, it was challenging in hindsight, it was very challenging for my wife, more challenging than, than for me, I think because, um, Nine months after we moved, we, we discovered Micah had developmental delays.
I was a full time student working two to three jobs. I could escape and go to class. I could escape and go to work. And my wife was, was the primary caregiver for a toddler and a newborn with special needs. It was a, um, a very different experience for me than it was for my wife over those three and a half years.
David Hirsch: So out of curiosity, how did you and Jen meet?
Joe Butler: And Jen and I met in Lakeland, Florida in the, uh, late nineties. My mom got remarried to my stepdad, Arthur and Arthur passed away, uh, close to eight years ago, but Arthur lived in Lakeland. And so upon graduation and from high school, uh, I moved with my mom to Lakeland.
Over the next couple of years is when, uh, just meeting through friends. I met, I met my future wife and, uh, at the time we were involved in, you would say an addictive lifestyle, not just drinking, but alcohol abuse, getting, getting drunk and drug abuse and, um, We had a pretty drastic rescue from that. Uh, we had a coworker, my wife was a functioning addict and I could get a job.
I would clean up. Nice. But then. You know, once I got the job, I would end up being too hung over to show up on time or something like that and lose my job. But my wife was an assistant manager at a retail store and one of the employees, there was a licensed somebody, God minister. He didn’t preach at us.
He prayed for us. And, uh, eventually we decided to check out the church that, uh, he was on staff at. And about four weeks after that, we came to faith in Jesus Christ and drastically changed our life. Freed us from substance abuse and addiction. And it, at that point, um, a majority of our friends were still living that lifestyle and, uh, we needed a fresh start and Jen’s parents live in New Jersey.
And, uh, there just so happened to be a job opening for the same company. She worked for about a half an hour from our parents in New Jersey. And the job posting had been open for a couple months and she applied for that. And. Got the position. And so we moved from Lakeland to New Jersey and, uh, and October of 1996, we lived with her parents.
Um, as we just got back on her feet. And until we got married in February of 97 and lived up in, uh, in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for the next 14 years.
David Hirsch: Well, that’s a very interesting and humbling start to your relationship. And, um, I admire the courage. It must’ve taken to look these addictions and other situations in the face and, you know, make the decision, our decision to say, that’s not who we are.
That’s not the lifestyle that we want to live. And to a chart, your own course, it’s fascinating how people’s lives evolve. And, um, I remember you telling me in a previous conversation that you had done some overseas ministry, and I’m wondering was that when you were younger or as an adult,
Joe Butler: that was as an adult, David had three opportunities to go overseas once to Honduras and, uh, Uganda.
And most recently, just this past summer to Ghana. And, uh, I’m sorry. And also Argentina as well. So 2014 to Uganda, 2015 in Argentina, and this past summer 2018 to, uh, Ghana and all three of those trips were focused on working with individuals and families affected by disability. Um, my oldest daughter, Hannah, uh, was able to go with me on to the last two of those trips.
Just really opened my eyes to how. People with disabilities and are treated in other countries other than America, and also how families treat them in other countries, how parents look at their child with special needs
David Hirsch: and, well, that’s fascinating. And I hope we can get into it a little bit more later in our conversation.
So let’s talk about special needs on a personal level. And then, um, if you will, on a professional level. So before Michael was born, did you and John have any connections to the special needs community?
Joe Butler: No before Micah was born, we had no connections. I often share that we never really noticed people with disabilities until our son was born.
I remember in high school seeing a student, probably with cerebral palsy who walked with, um, uh, some braces and, you know, never, never really thought about it. Uh, I think because it, it hadn’t impacted our life up until that point. Okay.
David Hirsch: So what was your first reaction upon learning of Michael’s diagnosis and what was the diagnosis?
Joe Butler: My wife’s started noticing as an infant in three months around three months that Micah just was, was delayed in some of his development. We had a typical birth by every definition, but he wasn’t cleaning on, he wasn’t babbling. He wasn’t doing some of the things that. Uh, the milestones suggested he should be.
So at nine months old, the pediatrician noticed it and diagnosed him with developmental delays, which meant he started receiving occupational speech and physical therapy. Every state has a what’s called early intervention for zero to three year olds. And so I would, I would highly recommend if you’re a father, a parent listening to this and you think your child may have some developmental delays.
Don’t hesitate to get them into early intervention services. It can not hurt. It can only help. We were living on the college campus and the therapist would come to us. And we were also close by to children’s hospital at Pennsylvania, that chop. And so we had great services around us, you know, really, we just, we did what we could, we didn’t really know what to do there.
Isn’t a manual. For families of children with disabilities. A lot of times they’re just born into families that have no experience. And so we just, we loved the Micah and got to know him when he was two and a half. Uh, he still wasn’t walking. He was still receiving therapy. We went to church. It was actually a Wednesday night church service.
And I usually didn’t go to church. Midweek during school, but this was the first Wednesday night. This was May 3rd, 2003. And school was out. We went to church and Micah was in the toddler class and Jen brought him to me. After class and said, Hey, can you hold him? I’m going to go get Hannah. And she said, he’s really tired.
So I just, I sat him on my knee and I was finishing a conversation with another man in the, in the men’s classroom. And Micah just started leaning back and I said, Hey, bud, sit up. And. And he’d just see lean back again. And then his eyes started rolling to the back of his head and he started shaking and I’m Oh my God.
I didn’t know what was going on. I just ran knew it. Wasn’t good. Ran into the foyer. And he was having a seizure, went into a full blown seizure and thankfully called for help. Uh, thankfully there were two nurses there that night and, uh, they attended to him while we called ’em. The ambulance. And he came out of that.
He, he vomited and seemed to come out of the seizure and according to one of the nurses, and then he went right back into it. And so the ambulance came, my wife jumped in there with him and they sped off and Hannah went home with, she was five. She went home with another family and I followed behind the ambulance and, um, got to the hospital, got to the ER, And after about 45 minutes, they had to sedate him to stop the seizure.
And, um, once he was sedated, they transferred him to a children’s hospital and did more tests and scans and, and, uh, you know, it was, um, that night that it, it really hit me that this was something that he wasn’t going to grow out of. This was something that was gonna probably affect him the rest of his life and, and.
Affect our family, the rest of our lives. And they only let one of us stay at the hospital that night. And, and my wife slept on a cot. She was pregnant with our third child. I went back to the dorm room and the last site that I had on my son was in a hospital crib with, with tubes and monitors. And, uh, he was out cold and just went back to our apartment on campus and, and really just was in shock.
And. I just didn’t know what to think, what to do. And I remember just laying on her bed, looking up at the ceiling and just saying, God, what’s going on? You know, why is, why is this happening? We we’ve committed our lives to you. We’ve sold half her possessions moved onto a college campus to pursue your call and what’s going on.
And, um, you know, I really grew a lot in my faith that night. And, and since then, It wasn’t a booming voice from God. It was a, a reminder in my spirit that, uh, children are a gift from God and the scripture Psalm one 27, three says, children are a gift from God are a reward from God. And it doesn’t say just healthy children.
It says children. God just reminded me of my spirit that night, that Micah was a gift from him and that he had a purpose and a plan for his life. I think I had put God sorta in a box and Christianity and a box. Thinking that if you, if you went to church, if you, if you gave that regularly, if you were, uh, you know, a good Christian person, then nothing bad would happen, but that’s just not, um, how the scripture defines being a follower of Christ.
Um, we all face suffering. We all face difficulties. We are in living in a fallen world. And so, uh, bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to, to Christians, to non-Christians. And so, um, And I looked at it, I guess it’s sort of a bad thing at the time. And, um, over the years, Mike has become the biggest blessing in our lives and, and not to put them on a pedestal, but in the sense that, uh, God has given us a new perspective, not just myself, but my wife and my children, his siblings have gotten a new perspective on life and living and what, what that really means, um, Micah gets, gets things better.
You know, he understands things a lot better than us. Sometimes he doesn’t have the inhibitions that you and I have. He’s not afraid to go up to a stranger and say hi, or give them a hug or ask a question, or he doesn’t care what he’s wearing on the first day of school or any day at school. He doesn’t care if he.
Uh, praises God and, and at church or in Walmart. Um, and, uh, he laughs easy, loves easy, cries, easy, and he doesn’t hold a grudge. Um, and so he’s taught us just, you know, what his, um, he, he, he loves God and he loves, loves others. And, and we’re called to love our neighbor and he loves his neighbor better than anybody I’ve I’ve ever met.
Um, so. Who, who has it more right. And, and who is, who has figured out life better? You know, my son or, or me or others who were typically able. Um, so he he’s taught us, just said invaluable lesson that, um, I wouldn’t change. And, um, you know, when we met with the neurologist over the next couple of days, they, they.
They had a bleak report that, um, basically came right out and said, there’s abnormalities in your son’s brain. We don’t know if a walk, if he’ll talk in complete sentences, if he’ll ever be independent. And, um, it hit me really hard at that point. Um, I called my mom and, uh, didn’t get ahold of her. And I had left a message with our pastor and pastor’s wife and she called back.
And as soon as I got on the phone and said those words, that there’s abnormalities in his brain, I just started balling, you know, I’d hit me. I think that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and. It was a new reality, having a child with a disability. There’s so many feelings at that point. I wanted to take my son’s place.
I wanted to make everything right. Um, it was hard to face that, you know, after neurologist gave us that, um, report, I just, again, and God reminded me is, is I was searching. Seeking him out and looking through the scriptures, Psalm one 39 talks about how he knows us before he forms us. He sees us in our mother’s womb and I, every day is, is ordained.
Every day is planned out ahead of time. He knows that the neurologist said there was a lack of oxygen, most likely in the first trimester that caused the abnormalities and Mike, his brain and, and the disability. And if that’s the truth, then. The other truth is that God saw that and knew that and allowed that for a reason bigger than what my dreams were for my son.
And so, um, that, um, was a life changer for us. You know, Mike is a, is a gift from God and we’re so thankful that God has given him to us and that, uh, the impact that he’s had on our family, Okay,
David Hirsch: well, thank you for sharing. That’s a very touching story and it sounds like quite a roller coaster ride that you and Jen have been on, particularly right around that time when Micah was two and a half years old and the seizures started, what was the actual diagnosis?
What did the neurologist, where I will tell you that your son has originally,
Joe Butler: they said cerebral dysgenesis, which explained. Uh, some of the, um, abnormalities in the brain and would affect his intellectual capacity, his speech, his physical motor skills. And then later Micah was diagnosed with PDD, nos, pervasive developmental disorder, which falls under the autism spectrum.
Now physical therapy was a big part of in speech therapy and occupational therapy, and he didn’t walk into his four years old. Yeah, the official diagnosis on the paperwork mainly is multiple disabilities, but he is unique. He’s one of a kind, but there’s a lot of unknowns. There’s a lot of, um, unknown on all that he comprehends.
If we ask him to go get his shoes, he can go get his shoes, you know, or get a drink of water or whatever it might be, but he does have a attention deficit, ADHD. Pretty severely and so loses his train of thought quite a bit and what he’s doing. And, but he also knows how to, how to play us sometimes, you know, and, and he, he’s very witty at times.
And there’s times where he’s, he’s a little off that day and I’m not sure what’s going on because he, he can’t verbally explain to us how he’s feeling or what’s going on. That’s that’s a glimpse of, of Micah’s who Mike is.
David Hirsch: Well, thanks for sharing. And, uh, you’re right. He’s a teenager. So there’s a lot of things going on in that teenage brain normally.
And then you’ve got the sort of situation, what you referred to as the new reality of, you know, what his situation is. What type of advice did you get early on? In addition to the physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational theory that helped you in gen.
Joe Butler: I think, um, you know, from the medical professionals, it was early intervention and the different therapies from others.
It was other families who were on the same journey that would tell us about a resource. Tell us about a support group. Introduce us to another family. Tell us about a natural remedy for some of Mike has special needs, things like that. There again, there isn’t a manual. That tells you, here’s how you raise a child with special needs.
There, there are resources out there. There’s families who have been through it. And so that’s what I love about special father’s network. And the mentorship program is I think there’s so much that young fathers, young parents can learn from fathers who have been on the journey and gone through it so many times as a dad, we want to play mr.
Fix it. We want to, we want to fix the problem. And it’s not really a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s a person that needs to be understood and related to, and, you know, it was, it was learning to get to know my son for who he is, you know, this is, this is who Micah is, what are some supports that we can help to be the best person that he is.
And how does that, um, impact our family and how do we balance that as a family?
David Hirsch: You know, I think it’s a really important revelation that you’ve shared. Let me paraphrase. You need to do accept Micah for who he is. Get whatever resources were available, but not turn your family inside out and make that, you know, everybody’s first priority because you know, you have your marriage and you have two other children and you don’t want to have his needs, steal all your resources, your energy of your family.
Yeah. Um, and that’s the balancing act that everybody talks about, which, you know, it’s not a right or wrong. It’s just that you need to find the center of gravity. For what works in your family and do the best you can with the resources and, you know, God already has a plan and we just need to be patient with how things evolve.
Joe Butler: Yeah.
David Hirsch: So thank you for your testimony. That is it’s heart warming to hear how you and Jen have dealt with the challenges. So when you think about challenges, I’m wondering, was there anything that was like a higher hurdle for you or Jen over the past 17 years with Mica situation?
Joe Butler: One of the most difficult things to deal with to understand, or to live with as a parent of a child with a disability.
Is that the social impact of that, you know, it’s affected our friendships. It’s affected Mike, his friendships. The, I remember when Micah was, was younger, he was always outgoing and friendly and would want to talk to people. We had a family, a friend who. It was a pastor. Um, at the same time I was pastoring and they had three kids and we have three kids and we had them over.
We went over there for dinner and the kids were playing. And then on the way home, you know, Hannah started crying in the car and, uh, she was probably. Seven years old. And she said, you know, that the boys were, were mean to Micah. And you know, it really affected her. This was a family we had known for a few years and we just, we invited them over the next month for dinner.
The parents would ask questions about Micah and, and how they could talk to their kids about Micah. And I remember that this next time, when they came over, we had stairs in our house and Micah, Micah, his room was upstairs. Because our room was upstairs and he couldn’t walk up the stairs, but he could use his hands and his feet to go up and, uh, we would go behind him.
And so one of the boys about his age asked why he couldn’t walk up the stairs and we just explained that his legs, his muscles in his legs weren’t strong enough yet to do that. And the boys like, Oh, okay. You know, and just that’s, that’s good. You gave me an answer, you know, that was a. 14 years ago or so.
And, and the family we’re still friends with were there some of our closest friends, one of our closest friends and, uh, the boys, um, the oldest boys had an off to college this year and, and the two others are in high school, a girl and a boy. And they, they love Mike at a death and a would do anything for him.
And so, um, I don’t think a lot of times parents are ready for that. A harsh reality that sometimes your, your child is going to be treated differently because, well, they’re different in some ways, and because of just ignorance by others, instead of getting upset and just saying, I don’t want to have anything to do with you, try to educate and make aware those people who you, who are your friends.
Who will respond, not that you have to respond to every person that makes it, that looks at your child and in a negative way, or makes a comment. But those that, you know, and those, you have a relationship with it’s worth speaking to them and investing in that relationship. And because you can change the way they look at people with disabilities.
David Hirsch: Well, you are touching on a really, really important issue that, uh, all families with disabilities, uh, are. I think challenged by which is you can’t control what other people are going to do or think, you know, you’re torturing yourself. If you think you can and you need to adapt to that reality, you know, right or wrong, those that, you know, accept you and your family the way they are, are your friends and those that struggle with it, or can’t through lack of understanding or ignorance, you know, that’s, that’s just okay.
Right. And maybe that’s hard to come to grips with, but you know, life’s too short, right? You are going to be overburdened by a situation. If you do you think you can control all the situations. So. Let’s talk about ability tree, which is this nine-year-old not for profit that you and Jen have started. That comes alongside.
Family is impacted by disability, through recreation, education, support, and training. Also known as rest, R E S T a with a headquarters in Northwest Arkansas, two locations in Florida, one in New Jersey and another in Texas
Joe Butler: people ask me why I do this and ability trees important because we’re all gone. It’s children and it’s just really, he loves us all. We all have gifts to offer ’em and I just want everyone to know that they’re valuable and they matter. And I want everyone else to know that people with disabilities better and are valuable.
David Hirsch: What was the impetus for creating ability truth?
Joe Butler: Yeah. So Micah was really the impetus for creatability tree. Uh, well, Micah was inspiration, but in our, in our travels, David, we, we, um, You know, upon graduation from Valley forge, we pastored for five years. And during those five years, you know, God really brought families of children with.
With all kinds of disabilities to our churches. And 2009, we stepped down, resigned our pastorate and started traveling as us missionaries throughout churches throughout the U S in 2009, November of 2009. And we got invited to a come speak at a church in Northwest Arkansas. And, um, The pastor as a daughter with spinal bifida.
And so he had heard our story. We had met him and he said, I’d love for you to come and share what you’re doing in churches, in our church. And so we came and there were two services and first service shared our story. Second service. Shared our story, but then I just had this inkling to share a vision of starting a disability outreach center in Northwest Arkansas that would expand around the country to come alongside families impacted by disability, through recreation, education, support, and training.
And I hadn’t planned on saying that and just felt, you know, just to have this vision in my heart and in my mind, and really felt like I’m. God was speaking to me and through me and, and my wife was like, where, where did that come from? You know? And, and, uh, and so, um, you know, we went back home to New Jersey and, you know, couldn’t get Arkansas for mind.
And about a week later, the pastor called us and he said, I think you’re supposed to move out to Arkansas and start that disability outreach center. And so, uh, we were, uh, Prayed about it, thought about it, talked about it said, God, you know, is this for us to do? And really, really felt like God was calling us to just start this ministry and that he would bring the people that it wasn’t just going to be us.
Uh, he was going to bring people to help us to do it. And so over the next nine months, we really prayed and God, and, and, um, prayed about the name, thought about the name. You know, we, we wanted to focus on abilities because everybody has abilities and my wife loves trees and, uh, it was, uh, and also the symbolism of trees, the change in season.
Um, you know, we, we went through different, um, We experienced different things when Micah was, was a toddler than we do as a teenager. And so, um, the, the root structure that’s needed to foundation that’s needed, uh, for families of children with special needs. So ability tree became the name of this disability outreach center.
And so we moved out to, um, Arkansas and, um, August of 2010 and, and founded the ability tree as a nonprofit organization. And, um, The rest is sort of history.
David Hirsch: No, that’s a wonderful story. Northwest Arkansas of all places. Did you have any connection to that part of the country or
Joe Butler: no, I’d never been to Arkansas and, uh, it was definitely a shock moving from, from New Jersey, 20 miles East of Philadelphia, you know, to, to Arkansas.
And we found that it was a great place to raise kids and great place to start a ministry. But, um, Yeah, we knew very little about our than then Walmart and the Clinton family that was about it. Okay.
David Hirsch: You had mentioned that, um, you were hoping that people would be involved, that you weren’t going to be able to do this yourself.
And I’m wondering how that has transpired, who got involved and who’s played an influential role in the development of the organization.
Joe Butler: One of the first supports we got was from a businessman and our home church gave us a, um, a building that he owned to use and about a 4,000 square foot facility and, and helped with the renovations of that.
And within, um, a year in, in December of 2011, we started with our first Friday night events. Um, respite night, we, um, used a recess model of respite, which is through 99 balloons. And so we started with Friday night, um, families drop their kids off at six o’clock and kids with special needs and their siblings.
And they go out, you know, um, to eat or take a nap or grocery shopping or whatever they want to do with that time. And they, uh, they come back around 10 o’clock to pick them up. You know, we, um, in 99 balloons, Matt and Jenny Mooney are the founder of not ambulance. And they’ve been a great support. Uh we’ve we’ve looked to partner with likeminded organizations and not try to reinvent the wheel.
To back up a little bit, David, um, the support, we were able to do what we’re doing because of individuals and churches supporting us on a monthly basis. Um, so we had a, a, a budget. We had, uh, a missions budget that we had raised over two years that would allow us to focus on establishing and building ability tree on a, on a full time basis.
And so because of the generous and faithful support of individuals and churches, we were able to do this full time and develop the programming. And we’re, we’re kind of like a faith based boys and girls club for families and kids with special needs, um, and, um, meet that, that, that need of, of afterschool and weekend rest.
And, you know, when parents, parents of children with special needs, one of the. Probably the number one need that we’ve heard from the families we’ve connected with is just a need for respite for that temporary rest. And so that’s what we, we really try to do is to provide that rest for families. We all have support needs.
We all have disabilities if you will. And so if we can support one another and in some people need some more support than others, but if we can learn to support one another within our community, our community is going to be a much better place and our lives are going to be much better life. You don’t have to have a specialization or degree.
I’m working with people with special needs. Uh, you just have to have a heart. For people and be willing to sit down and get to know the person
David Hirsch: that’s fabulous. So you’ve had about nine years of experience from the time you started in 2009 to current, you have multiple locations. And I’m wondering if there’s a story or two that come to mind that emphasizes what ability tree is all
Joe Butler: about.
You know, one that that hits me is one of our families. They have a. One child and the father travels a lot. The mother is typically, you know, with, with the son throughout the day and except when he’s at school and when they first started coming, the father shared that it had been because of his travel and because of his son’s special needs, his wife hadn’t had a break in about eight or nine years.
And so, um, they didn’t have any family that they could really give support. And so ability tree was the first true rest that, that his wife had gotten. There’s so many stories of the impact on families. It blows my mind, just that the thankfulness, the gratefulness by families. We’ve also just seen the impact in the community.
John Brown university is in Salem Springs, Arkansas. This’ll be the seventh year that we’re partnering with one of their Christian formation classes called a gateway class and it focuses on, on disability. And part of the coursework is to volunteer 20 hours down at ability tree during afterschool or Friday nights or during the sports leagues or art.
We, we have the students journal and they, they answer the question basically over the semester of what is disability. And we just see this, this light bulb go off many times. We see this, um, lack of understanding this uncomfortableness with the unknown turn into an understanding that these are just. Kids.
These are just teenagers. These are just people that have different needs. And oftentimes the students, the volunteers, you know, learn more, they’re impacted much more greatly than the kids they’re serving. So it’s just, it’s neat to see, um, How it’s, how it’s come about and who’s come on board, the individuals in businesses and churches that have come on board to really the makeability tree, what it is, what do you get whenever you cross people in wheelchairs and the most awesome place ever ability tree.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I love what you’re doing. I love the symbolism. Like you were saying behind the tree, the aspect of the tree focusing on. The ability as opposed to disability. Oh, the seasons have changed the roots, the branches. I mean, it just, I think it’s brilliant.
Joe Butler: This is the best place ever. So I’m
David Hirsch: thinking about advice.
What are some more of the important takeaways that come to mind raising a child with differences? If you had to name one or two,
Joe Butler: I think, um, again, just coming to grips with, um, your child’s special needs, you know, Disability is not a, not a bad word and disability doesn’t need to define your child as a, as a parent.
I think we all have an innate nature to love our children. And sometimes when our child, isn’t what we expect our child to be. We can, we can reject them in certain ways, but I think just learning, just loving your child and getting to know them. And on their level and connecting with them is so important.
Not denying the fact that, you know, if a doctor or, or medical professional says notices something or encourages you to get a test or that your child may have a disability or special needs instead of denying that. Being vulnerable and exploring that and saying, okay, let’s, let’s see what what’s going on here.
Uh, because the earlier you get support, the better it is for your child and for the family, you know, your child has gifts and talents and has a purpose and being open to. Learning from your child and, and what’s, um, as a parent, what, what am I to learn through the process? What are my children to learn through the process?
How can I impact my community through this process? You know, maybe your child will grow out of some of the delays, but if it’s a permanent disability, if it’s an intellectual disability, it’s going to last, uh, A lifetime. And so it hinders or hurts to ignore that the sooner you can embrace that and say, okay, how can I help my child?
And what can I learn from through this experience that the better it will be for your child and for you?
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So why is it that you’ve agreed to be a mentor father as part of the Special Fathers Network?
Joe Butler: Yeah, David, I, I think, um, as I mentioned, um, a little bit earlier, the biggest supports for, for myself and for my wife as a young family, with a child with special needs was the mentorship from and friendship from other families who had been on the journey longer than we had.
And so I think that’s so important because there isn’t a manual. There isn’t a no, no. How to a book on, on raising a child with special needs, you know, you have to learn, you know, by experience and learn from others. And so to be able to just impart, hopefully some wisdom, but also just learning from failure and sharing that with, with younger fathers to say, Hey, You know, I know it seems bleak right now, or it seems overwhelming, or you don’t have the answers that you were hoping you would have, you know, more often than not things are going to get better and just continue on this journey.
And there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, oftentimes. And. You know, when, when you can talk to somebody else that’s gone through it. One of the things that I know in the, in the church or is, is I think as individuals, as humans, we have a difficult time dealing with is death and disability. And those are a couple of things that are, we don’t like to bring up.
We don’t know what to say. To somebody whose child has passed away or whose child has a disability. So we don’t say anything at all. And we further marginalized them and further isolate them. So if we can talk to, uh, as, as a father, if I can talk to another father, a younger father and say, Hey, this was hard to go through.
This was difficult. This may not end up the way you want it to. But you’re gonna, you’re gonna make it through and you’re going to be a better person because of it. You know, if I can be a part of that, that’s what I want to do.
David Hirsch: Well, thank you. Uh, let’s give a special shout out to our friends at Johnny and friends for putting us in contact with one another and for being such a big inspiration to us and so many others.
I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to add before we wrap up.
Joe Butler: And I just thank you, David, for all the work that you’re doing. To help fathers become better fathers. Thank you for your passion for your time, for your, for your talents. And, uh, it’s been a joy getting to know you and excited to see, um, all the good work that, um, comes about through the Special Fathers Network.
David Hirsch: Well, thank you. If somebody wants to get information on ability, tree, get involved, make a donation, where would they go? Or how would they contact you?
Joe Butler: Go to our website abilitytree.org. Or they can contact me directly by email at email@example.com.
David Hirsch: Joe, thank you for taking the time and many insights.
As a reminder, Joe is just one of the dads was agreed to be a mentor father as part of the special fathers network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation, your own, please go to 21st century dads.org.
Thanks again, Joe.
Joe Butler: You’re welcome, David. Thank you.
Tom Couch: The Special Father’s Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs through our personalized matching process. New fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for us.
Fathers to support fathers. Sometimes the mentor father is just there to answer a few questions. Sometimes they become good friends. It’s a proven support system for new fathers with special needs kids. If you’re a father looking for support, or if you’re a dad who’d like to offer support, go to 21stcenturydads.org. That’s 21stcenturydad.org.
David Hirsch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network podcast, stories of fathers, helping fathers.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network podcast was produced for 21st Century Dads by Couch Audio, and again, to find out more about the Special Fathers Network, go to 21stcenturydads.org, 21stcenturydads.org.