by Richelle Kimble • photography by Two Eagles Marcus
“I played with snakes and frogs and caught butterflies and built forts under the canopy of the woods,” she said, describing her rural childhood roots. Her appreciation of environmental essence continues to impact her today both socially and professionally; only now, she’s playing with community gardens, catching sustainability glitches and building her mission to provide nutritional education and equality for all.
Lisa Butler’s tenacity is complemented by her joyous aura. As a woman with relentless dreams for our community, she carries poise and passion to each corner in which her efforts are placed. Butler’s role as director of the Center for Health and Wellness at Urban League allows her to impact lives of all community members. At Urban League, she’s the minuscule version of what she sees as perfection for the community at large: she assess problems efficiently, conquers solutions effectively, and moves forward in unity.
Through Urban League, Butler focuses on holistically aiding people and providing resources to meet their needs. “Most people come in the door looking for one thing, knowing they have many needs but figure they can just ask for one,” she said. “Well, my job is to find out what those others things are and try to surround them with enough tangible resources that we can begin to help them heal and be successful, one step and one person at a time.” Aiding individuals, families and youth are an innate component of her role as much as it is of her nature.
Amidst youth programs, individual aid and family assistance, an exciting initiative she’s in the process of executing is a full-circle youth gardening project. From creating hydroponic units for growth to developing trade skills and a business plan for a future farmers market, the program is a foundational vision for implementing healthy and sustainable food practices into future generations.
Butler is a devout advocate for community sustainability and development, and she’ll work beyond implementation. Her dreams include you, me and our neighbors living under an umbrella of equality, opportunity and sustainability. Read on to learn more about her passion, her initiatives at Urban League, and why she was deservedly recognized as the Woman of Hope by West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s Women and the Environmental Symposium in March.
WLM: What in your past has prepared you for the accomplishments you’ve achieved today?
LB: I think everything that I have experienced in my past prepared me for my now. I struggled like most young people trying to find their place. I have been homeless and also been at some great high places in my life. I have had the opportunity to explore places that most people only dream of, and am doing what I love most!
What is the most gratifying thing about your job?
I get to take things that I dream about and make them happen. I get to listen to peoples’ stories and assist them in their plans for success and I have freedom to create.
What instilled your passion to help educate and advocate for our community’s environmental awareness?
The belief that everyone deserves to have something to call their own, and it should be as good as the next person’s. No one deserves to get treated like they are less than others. Children deserve a clean and safe environment to grow up in and parents need to know that their children are receiving the best they can possibly have.
In your opinion, what is the path to success to achieving a communal culture of health?
The path to success is equality, justice and inclusion for all. When we begin to truly care about our neighbor and not do things for our own selfish gain, then we are moving in the right direction. A lot of things in society are the same as they always have been but with a different face. It’s time to take the mask off and reveal the truth so we can begin to heal and move forward in unity.
What environmental accomplishments do you hope to see in our community?
If I could be queen for a day, I would establish a system of urban gardening in every neighborhood that could sustain them. Everyone would have a hand in the creation and maintenance and be recipients of their own handiwork. There would be more rooftop green spaces in the urban core, more schools that utilize their green spaces to provide garden to cafeteria foods, and no tobacco!
What problems do you see minorities facing as director of the center for health and wellness at Urban League?
Most of the issues I see coming in the doors at the Urban League are around employment. It seems to be like a rollercoaster; there may be a flurry of workers and no jobs and then a lot of job opportunities and no people to place. [Some employers] do not pay enough for someone to support their family, so people will leave one job to go to another for $1. They don’t see the value in staying at one place for a long time, but that is also because they are not valued. They don’t have the skills they need to be effective on their jobs; they are dealing with transportation issues; they lack quality education and family supports; and there are more homeless youth than ever before. We have to surround our millennials with more support for them to be successful.
What shocks you the most amid your environmental or health education efforts?
The lack of follow through and real support that organizations have for people in need. Too many people are slipping through the cracks unnecessarily because we lack true concern for others; they are just a number on a caseload. For example, children are suffering, families are suffering, there is a lack of stable and safe housing for families, families are sleeping in cars more and more, clean and affordable housing and job stability are few and far between, and people are hungry. We have to do better!
What obstacles and frustrations do you face while reaching toward your goals?
There doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to help! There is such a need in this community, and people don’t know where to go to get help. Real help! Funding is lacking, and everyone is fighting for a piece. Large donors are funding less, because they are getting less. There’s just not enough!
In regard to the gardening program, where do you gain your resources and is there a need for additional resources? If so, how can community members pitch in to help?
We get resources from a number of people; the Kent County Health Department, and Baxter Community Center have been huge supports. I have had to be very creative and have done a lot with a little. I was approached by another organization to work with their youth, which will increase our capacity one and a half times over. Is there a need for more support? Always. People can donate to the youth programs or become members of Urban League. We take seedling donations, supply donations, all they need to do is call me at (616) 252-2214. If people want to help us in the gardens, donate time, tools or expertise we are very appreciative.
Do you have a memorable story or quote from someone that displays the impact your efforts are creating?
Last summer we began collecting bikes for our youth, one day I pulled in and the bikes were gone. Someone had stolen them. After I reported them missing later that day, they caught who stole them and notified me. When I saw that they were all the same age of the boys I worked with, I felt we as an organization had a duty to implement some social justice in this matter. I contacted the prosecutor and asked if we could be a part of the process for this young man. They agreed and a few months later called me to say they wanted me to come to his hearing. In the court room the judge explained to the young man who the Grand Rapids Urban League was the importance of the work we do in the community. Well by the time he was done, the young man was sentenced to come to our office and do his community service. This made me happy because it gave us an opportunity to pour into his life and help him make better choices. What the outcome will be, I don’t know, but I do know we did the best we could to aid this young man and to instill in him a sense of belonging in the community.
Describe a true community collaboration that brought the largest smile to your face.
There was a young lady that came into the office for employment. She told one of the specialists that she was having a number of issues and needed to talk to someone. He asked me to talk to her, and I did. When she told me about her problems, she began to express concerns of depression, her constant head aches, and her struggle with performing well at work. As I dug deeper, I found out she had a bad prescription for her glasses and that was affecting her eyesight and her job performance, and her feelings of depression were coming from her living situation. I made a phone call to a friend who signed her up for healthcare, made her an appointment to see a doctor, and another appointment to see an optometrist. Within two weeks she had improved at her job, received a raise, move into better housing, and was happy. She called me back to thank me for all the help. Sometimes it is the little things that can help a person see beyond all the darkness and confusion, and if you can alleviate some of their pain it may be enough to get them back on a straight path again.
“If I could be queen for a day … there would be more rooftop green spaces in the urban core, more schools that utilize their green spaces to provide garden to cafeteria foods, and no tobacco!”
When she’s not editing for WLM, Richelle enjoys exploring, traveling, writing, reading, cooking, learning and playing. Follow her for adventure inspiration: @thekleerlife