After moving to Port Saint Lucie from the Baltimore—Washington metropolitan area in 2006, Debbie Butler, President of Guardians for New Futures, was initially considering early retirement. However, with a background in operations and human capital for two startup companies – one that grew to include offices in the U.S., Canada, U.K. and France – Butler had too valuable of a skill set to sit idle. After a year of consulting work with her former employer, she discovered Guardians for New Futures and became aware of the extent of neglected and abused children in need of support.
“At the time, I had no idea there were so many kids in the system,” she said. “Understanding that world and helping the children quickly became a passion of mine. In 2008, a colleague asked me to sit on the board. I’ve been President ever since.”
Despite not having experience in the non-profit world, the impact of Butler’s background in international business and human capital was immediately felt.
“When you think about an organization, you’re always looking at financial capital,” she said. “However, most people don’t realize that human capital is what’s going to make your business work. Many non-profits don’t have a long-term vision or leaders with the business acumen to make it work. We do things differently. We operate our non-profit like a business. My mantra is lead, follow or get out of the way.”
Founded in 1991, Guardians for New Futures didn’t live up to its full potential until Butler came on board. The most they had raised during a single event was $5,000. Butler knew more exposure, support and additional services were needed to reach more children and increase community awareness and education to further protect children along the Treasure Coast.
“We’re very fortunate to live in a caring community,” she said. “A lot of people want to help, but they don’t know what that looks like. I started a gift drive in 2008 that has since served over 8,000 children. In 2019 alone, we served over 1,500. Now, our focus is on raising funds for the Child Advocacy Center (CAC). We’ve already raised $500,000 and we’re working to raise another $550,000. Everything will go towards the buildout and bringing all the resources under one roof.”
As Butler shared, the judicial circuit – comprised of St. Lucie, Okeechobee, Indian River and Martin Counties – is the only one in the state without a CAC. As such, children suffering from abuse are required to drive to several different locations across the four county region to record their story, have a physical exam and receive mental and emotional support – a process that often brings these kids to eight different locations.
“We’re doing everything we can to bring these resources under one roof,” Butler said. “Aside from reducing the trauma of having to drive these kids all over the place and requiring them to rehash their stories, areas with CACs have a higher prosecution rate. The CAC will bring all the players including the Child Protection Team, mental health resources and physical exam resources to one location. The role that Guardians for New Futures is playing is that of an umbrella. As a mission-driven organization, we work hard to identify the needs of our children and make it happen. What we do can change the trajectory of a kid’s life.”
Butler added, “In just one year, there were almost 3,000 allegations of maltreatment of children in our circuit and an average of 35 children removed from their homes every month. I’m hoping that everyone will join us in raising money to bring a CAC to our circuit to help these kids get the support they need.”
Looking ahead, Butler’s primary focus is on the CAC. She’s determined to make it happen and won’t let off the gas pedal until the center is up and running. With zero hesitation to take on new challenges, she also mentioned the possibility of getting involved in the system. Regardless of her role, it’s safe to say that Butler – 14 years later – is still far from retirement.
What advice does Butler have for aspiring entrepreneurs? “Don’t be afraid to move forward on anything you’re passionate about,” she said. “The worst thing is you might stumble. That’s okay. Get up and try again. Also, don’t listen to the negative self-talk. It’s like having a bad roommate in your heard. Kick that roommate out of your head!”
“In terms of specific advice for operating a non-profit, invest in Constant Contact. Our database includes over 6,000 community members. It’s an invaluable tool. Also, when it comes to sending out emails – don’t overdo it. The last thing you want is for people to unsubscribe.”
Butler also recommends a book called Leadership and Self Deception: Getting Out of the Box by The Arbinger Institute.