Sarah Butterfield turns personal loss into life of purpose

East Lyme Youth Services Program Director Sarah Butterfield jokes with members of the Student Planning Association, a group of fifth- to eighth-grade students that meets every Wednesday to plan large scale community service projects. The group planned a Spirit Week at the middle school and a car wash as fundraisers for the Bourgeois Family Fund.
East Lyme Youth Services Program Director Sarah Butterfield jokes with members of the Student Planning Association, a group of fifth- to eighth-grade students that meets every Wednesday to plan large scale community service projects. The group planned a Spirit Week at the middle school and a car wash as fundraisers for the Bourgeois Family Fund. Dana Jensen photo

Sarah Butterfield's life has not been easy — but it has prepared her to help local children and teens in a way few others can.

When Sarah was an eighth-grader growing up in Griswold as the youngest of five children, her mother died in a car accident. "I was in the car, too," she said. "We were on our way to go Black Friday shopping and she lost control of the car. My mother was the world to me, and it was a life-changing moment."

The following April, her father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. "We watched him shrink to 92 pounds on his 6'3" frame over the next two years," Sarah recalled. He passed away at the beginning of her sophomore year in high school.

"I had to grow up really fast," Sarah said. "I decided I was going to use my unfortunate circumstances for the better. It was very important to me not to be a cliche statistic."

Sarah has served as the Program Director for East Lyme Youth Services since 2008. She works with area youth on a near-daily basis, guiding them through the traumas and trials of their adolescent years. All told, she reaches about 1,500 middle- and high-school students every year, mostly from East Lyme and Salem.

Sarah has had a long and storied career in the art of helping others. She volunteered as a youth coordinator for children of drug users, as well as infected and affected children of HIV and/or AIDS-positive parents with the Windham AIDS Program during her college years at UConn and Eastern.

"I gave the children positive mentors and I did some reporting," she said. "I discovered I was really good at documentation, which is weird because no one likes documentation," she laughed.

Sarah concurrently volunteered as a rape crisis advocate for the Women's Center of Northeastern Connecticut in Willimantic, and was also a domestic violence survivor advocate with United Services.

"I loved it," she said. "A lot of people asked me, 'Why put yourself through all this?' I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment if I can help someone get through the roughest day of their life."

She also worked as a Jobs First Employment Services Case Manager with the Thames Valley Council for Community Action (TVCCA), helping up to 175 families on state cash assistance gain employment. She also held a position as a Life Skills and Job Placement Coordinator for four years for the Noank Group Homes & Support Services, Inc., which now operates three therapeutic group homes for girls ages 14 to 18 in Noank, Mystic and Ledyard.

"I went back to kind of connect with myself as a teenage girl losing her parents," she explained. "I taught the girls at the home everything they'd normally learn from parents. The longer they stayed in a safe and supportive environment, away from abuse and dysfunction, the greater their chances of stopping the cycle of abuse, and growing up to be happy, functioning adults."

Then Sarah had children, and her priorities shifted. "The group home wanted to change my hours so I wouldn't be able to put my kids to bed anymore, and that wasn't something I was willing to miss out on," she explained.

Sarah and her partner Eric have known each other since high school, and dated briefly before she went away to college. Eric's children coincidentally lost their own mother two years ago in a car accident.

"It seems like a kind of divine intervention that I am able to help them through their grief that I am all too familiar with," Sarah said. "I love having them in my life. They are a great big brother and sister to my two little ones and they make me smile just as much as they drive me crazy. I'm very lucky."

Anna Hartung, administrative assistant for the town of East Lyme, said, "Sarah makes sure all kids feel connected to the youth center when they walk through the door. "

Hartung, who has known Sarah since 2008 and nominated her to be featured in Grace added, "She feels a connection to children more than any woman I know, and I think the loss of her mother instilled [in her] a compassion for children and their struggles as they grow. To see her with teenagers is really special. They love her, and she helps them with their problems. So many kids come home from college and can't wait to visit her and check in."

Sarah was drawn to ELYS because, she said, "I thought it would be nice to have a more uplifting job. The kids in East Lyme don't have the constant crisis issues I would have had to deal with on a daily basis in my other jobs, but there are tough things that come into play, like kids cutting themselves and being bullied, drug and alcohol abuse, and we talk about how to deal with that."

She added, "What is nice ... is that no two Youth Service Bureaus are the same. They respond to the individual needs of their particular community. I love that my position is dynamic."

Her tasks include running the ELYS Student Planning Association, in which fifth- through eighth-graders meet weekly to plan large-scale community service projects. The students come up with all the ideas, and choose the charities to benefit from the projects they plan, Sarah said.

As program director, Sarah also organizes courses on babysitting, CPR and first aid certification, and staying safe while home alone. She runs the Ski Club, weekly nighttime summer events, the Student Advisory Board, a service club in the high school, supervises the after-school programs, coordinates the annual middle school Talent Show, the Flanders 5K, and even painted the Youth Center over April vacation.

"I love my job," she said. "Sometimes, when politics get involved, it can be very frustrating because you just want to make a difference and there's so much bureaucracy and red tape to get through. But making a difference can simply mean talking to a kid when no one else will talk to that kid."

She also co-chairs the East Lyme Alcohol and Substance Abuse Coalition.

Ainsley Bryce is a college student who has been involved with ELYS for four years.

"I started working at youth services when I was a junior in high school," Ainsley said. "Sarah opened up so many doors for me in understanding what I wanted to do and what I'm interested in."

She added, "I've gotten involved in my town and working with kids. By starting to work here I got involved in so many other ways."

Sarah said, "It's very easy for me to see the best in the kids and what their special gifts are. Youth want to change the world."

Sarah says she hasn't lost her youthful idealism, but now it's shaped by the reality of how positive change happens — slowly, and with one person at a time. "Even though I didn't get to join the Peace Corps, I think if I can positively affect hundreds of kids right here in the U.S., I would have made a significant difference by the time I hang it up and move to a beach in the Bahamas and sell mangoes on the side of the road. Or maybe I'll get to Africa after all and set up a Youth Services division in Uganda."

Sarah's caring and attentive personality isn't reserved for work. She has two biological children, Leah, 3, and Colby, 6, and two "bonus" children, as she calls them — Nadia, 9, and Marcus, 12.

"At 4:30, the bell rings," she said. "I pick up my 6-year-old and 3-year-old, I come home and my stepkids are already there. I get dinner ready and we do our nightly routine. I would love to go to bed around 8 p.m. every night. By 9:30, I'm ready to collapse. I have four kids, three cats, a dog, and an Eric," she joked. "It's a big life but I love every single day of it. My dog, an Old English Bulldog, was named after my hero, Gandhi. People look at me funny at the dog park, but I don't mind. He is the author of the quote that drives my work and my personal life: 'Be the change you wish to see in the world.'"

Dana Jensen photo
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