As a commercial real estate developer, Bill Butler is an expert builder. Since 1965 his company, Corporex, has created more than 18 million square feet of office and retail space and managed 32 hotels across the United States. In his home community of northern Kentucky, Butler is tackling an even deeper challenge: building more hope-filled lives for those trapped in unemployment, poverty, and dysfunction. Ten years ago, he created the Life Learning Center, a non-profit offering struggling people a chance for transformational change. The Philanthropy Roundtable took a moment to ask Butler exactly what the Life Learning Center offers.
Q: How did you get involved in philanthropy?
Butler: Philanthropy is central to my purpose in life, my growth spiritually. I think we have an incumbency to help others, largely out of a search for the purpose we all have in being here.
Q: How do you explain the work of the Life Learning Center? How is it different from other non-profits that help people get and hold jobs?
Butler: We want to deal with the whole person—intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually—and nurture a commitment to long-term change.
Locally there are plenty of traditional social-service agencies. You can say you need housing, and there’s help. You can ask for food and an organization will feed your family. But these are Band-Aid solutions. The Life Learning Center is for the person who is ready to do something drastically different in all aspects of life. The attitude we look for is “I don’t just need food or transitional housing. I need to change what I’m doing so that everything improves.” The center strengthens individuals so they are ready for real and lasting change, and we only admit candidates who are willing and able to commit.
Also important: The center does not accept government dollars. The classes and programs are designed to meet the actual needs of candidates, not to comply with state or federal funding mandates. In 2014, the center will move into a new facility with expanded classrooms, computer labs, partner agency offices, a fitness center, commercial training kitchen, a credit union, room for future on-site medical services, and more. We are seeking support for these improvements only through private donations.
Q: What are the keys to helping a person transform her life?
Butler: There is no simple formula to bring people out of poverty and into a life of self-sufficiency, dignity, and fulfillment. One must rise above a state of mind, or addiction, or illness that prevents success.
Programs like Alcoholics Anonymous that deliver long-term change require individual commitment, practice, and a strong desire to change. They are most effective where there is an economic platform and a love-centered environment that provides support.
But for those living in poverty, dependency, and abusive situations, often with limited educational background, A.A. and all the counseling in the world may not succeed. In broken families, in adverse environments, one does not develop the foundation for building a life of growth, sustainability, or service to others.
The Life Learning Center is about starting over. Going back to build the framework, the foundations, discovering what could be, learning what was not learned by those who seriously struggle. Essentially, learning how to live.
Q: How do you know if someone is a good fit for LLC?
Butler: The center uses an interview process and drug testing to identify candidates who are ready and willing to change. Not only does this screening process benefit the organization, it boosts the resolve of the candidates. There is a sense of accomplishment that they have been selected, which brings a heightened sense of responsibility and increases the likelihood that they will stay with the program.
Also, before classes start, candidates attend an orientation session that explains what they are committing to, and gives them a chance to opt out if they can’t make the commitment. And throughout the program, there are several points where they must reaffirm their commitment.
The demographics of our candidates are fairly diverse. The average age is 36, but there have been people as young 18 and as old as 79. Forty percent have a criminal record. Fifteen percent dropped out of high school; 35 percent earned a high school diploma or GED; 25 percent have some college coursework; and 25 percent actually hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree. It shows that education alone does not guarantee life success.
The structured curriculum runs for 16 weeks and includes an employment-readiness component. Sixty-two percent of our candidates are employed by the time they finish the program. One-on-one life coaching continues beyond completion of the curriculum, and people can stop back in at any point, especially if they hit a stumbling block in their work or personal life.
Q: Why do people come to LLC?
Butler: We often hear “My life has hit rock bottom, and something has to change.” Sometimes this realization follows a specific life event, like divorce, unemployment, losing custody of a child, or time spent in prison or drug rehab. Other times, people are referred by family members or friends who have gone through the Life Learning Center and made changes themselves.
Q: What happens to those who are screened out?
Butler: People are not a good fit for the program if they are actively struggling with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, addictions, and the like. The center refers these people to our collaborative partners in the community, and invites them to return when their basic barriers have been addressed.
Q: Why do you concentrate your giving in Covington, Kentucky?
Butler: Primarily because I grew up here, live here, and the company is headquartered here. More than 360,000 people live in three Kentucky counties just across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio, but northern Kentucky families don’t have access to the same resources that persons in larger cities do. I concentrate my giving here because it makes a real difference.
Q: What will northern Kentucky look like if you are successful?
Butler: Northern Kentucky will be a vibrant community, and the center will be a nucleus for action and personal growth, not only for the candidates who complete our programs and secure work, but for our volunteers as well. I want to see people bond and have a sense of fulfillment and contribution.