For several charitable organizations, the holiday season — like the rest of the year — is a time to help those dealing with some of life's toughest problems and providing solutions to those problems. In the week leading up to Christmas, the News Tribune is showcasing people whose lives have been impacted by United Way of Central Missouri partner agencies and supporters in the annual "A Christmas Wish" series.
Seated in front of a roomful of young students, Samuel Butler clasped his hands together and looked into the sea of expectant gazes watching his every move. Butler introduced himself, then paused slightly before continuing, as if preparing himself — and the students — for his next words.
"I started at y'all's age using drugs and selling drugs," he said.
The room quieted, then one student timidly raised a hand.
"What kind of drugs?"
Butler laughed. "Does that matter?"
For Butler, it doesn't anymore. He's eager to learn from his past and move on to his future, where greater things await him. He will have been out of prison for six months this Saturday, but as he walked into the Council for Drug Free Youth office in a sharp, gray suit and tie to greet Joy Sweeney with a booming voice, it's clear he's not who he was six years ago.
June 23, 2013.
It's the day Butler's extensive history with drug use and dealing and cycling through juvenile detention centers, jails and institutions culminated into one event that changed the trajectory of his life forever.
It's the day Butler realized, as he said, "there's no loyalty in the streets."
"It's every man for themselves. It's a dog-eat-dog world. And it took me looking at three counts of 25 to life to realize that," he said.
During a drug deal gone wrong that Butler facilitated, a man was robbed and fatally shot six times. It took a year and a half for the trial to start and conclude. While he was not found guilty of murder, he was incarcerated for his role in facilitating the deal.
In a written testimony, Butler said he had "reaped the consequences" of his lifestyle.
Then he had a revelation, spurred in part by a daughter on the way.
"At age 26, I realized I was doing the same thing that I had been doing all my life," Butler said. "I realize that in society's eyes, by age standard, I was considered a man. Due to my actions, I was not a man. I was still conducting myself as a boy. I realized I could never be a father to my daughter as a boy."
Determined, he began to seek ways to change. However, he didn't have a father figure to look up to, and his older brothers were immersed in the lifestyle he was trying to run from. It was the blind leading the blind, Butler said.
"So I went to the only source I knew. I searched the person with all the wisdom in the world, the wisdom outside of the world," he said. "I went to God. And he molded me. He showed me things I had never seen before."
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Through his new-found faith, Butler looked to himself, searching for meaning and purpose. During his first time in prison at 19, he'd taught himself to read and write. This time around, he used the time in jail to read and study, spending days with the TV stuffed under the bunk and a book in his hands. At one point, his cellmates asked him if his TV was broken. Butler responded he didn't want to even see the red light of the television.
In his studies, one scripture stood out in particular — Romans 12:1-2.
"That's a scripture that really woke me up. In the beginning I was kind of walking in a blurred interpretation. I was trying to walk in a gray area and still do stuff that I knew was wrong," Butler said. "But that scripture, it woke me up. Like, 'Hold on.' It said, 'Give myself as a living sacrifice,' and then it gave me the key of how to do it."
Studying scriptures, Butler said, put him on the "course of becoming a man" and learning his purpose.
"I knew the way I lived my life, I would never be there for my daughter," he said. "And I figured life was over because prison was going to be the rest of my life, but through the grace of God, he showed me there was another way."
In 2015, when he saw a photo in the newspaper at the Jefferson City Correctional Center of a CDFY celebration, he reached out to Sweeney, the executive director. Butler said he had realized his calling was to help at-risk youth avoid the mistakes he had made and lived through.
Weeks later, Sweeney wrote back.
"To me, to have somebody reach out and actually seek the help, guidance, direction and purpose from such a space of confinement I thought, 'Well, the very least I can do is respond,'" Sweeney said.
The two stayed in contact over four years until Butler's release earlier this year, a year and a half early. Now, they share those memories and conversations about accountability and forgiveness. Butler has more or less come to terms with his history.
"The only way to change your ways is to take accountability for the parts you play in every situation," he said.
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And in finding his purpose, Butler said, he learned it's not outside he needed to look, but inside — within. So many people, he said, turn to society to tell them what they're created for instead of turning to their creator.
Butler doesn't believe in chance — no matter how hard the experience. Meeting Sweeney was "God-ordained," he said. With Sweeney and CDFY, he's able to venture into uncharted territory and has big dreams for independent living programs for at-risk youth and accreditation as a youth drug counselor.
"See, God prepares you for things. You pick up certain traits, certain qualities, certain attributes, and you might not use them then and there, but you'll use them in the future," he said.
Since his release June 21, he's gotten joint custody of his now 6-year-old daughter, become the acting youth pastor at his church, and landed his own apartment and car. Sweeney and Butler are working to get him approved to facilitate classes at CDFY.
Sweeney said witnessing Butler transform into a motivated and willing young man has been tremendously rewarding.
"I'm very, very proud of him," Sweeney said. "I want to encourage him every single day to continue in that path, and if he ever struggles or needs me, I will literally stop a meeting and talk to him because it's that important to me that he continues his progress."
"Right now, it's a balancing act, really," Butler said of his work with CDFY. "It's as needed. Wherever (Sweeney) needs me, I'm ready, I'm willing."
There's two sides of the game, and Butler knows both of them. It's not glamorous. It can be painful. And there are consequences.
Even now, six months out of prison, Butler said he still feels he needs to prove himself. It's for the young students listening to his life story so intently. For the board who can sign off on his facilitator training. For the community he wishes to reach.
Every day, Butler said, he feels God continue to bless him with unmerited favors. He remembered the exact date of his release and the exact date he recorded video testimony with the Lincoln University TV station. And having the chance to be in his daughter's life is a blessing, too.
In the line of illegal drug use and dealing, Butler said he learned there's only three ends: jails, institutions or death.
"I didn't have to die, but I experienced death first-hand from my friend," he said. "I made a decision that two people had to die that day — the old me that died with him. I said, 'I can't let my friend die in vain.'"