Ionnie Butler finds purpose in offering help Program begins its eighth year HOWARD COUNTY EDUCATION

October 04, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Where there's a will, there's Ionnie Butler.

The woman who claims she can never sit still has paved the way to better grades and better self-esteem for hundreds of Howard County students -- all it takes is a helping hand, she says.

And that's the name of her organization, the Helping Hands Enrichment and Leadership Program, set up to increase self-awareness among black students and promote their academic achievement.

Neither her work nor her organization have gone unnoticed. The 43-year-old Columbia resident was selected in June for one of 11 Volunteer of the Year awards from Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Howard County recognized Helping Hands as the Outstanding Volunteer Group of 1991.

"God had a purpose for me to fulfill, and I really believe Helping Hands was the thing to do," said Mrs. Butler.

She started Helping Hands seven years ago at Jeffers Hill Elementary School, which her children attended.

"We were very much concerned," she said. "It was very evident the African-American children in Howard County schools were not faring as we had hoped in terms of tests."

Black students were being suspended at a disproportionately high rate, a problem that continues. And two out of four black students were likely to graduate from high school with less than a 2.0 grade-point-average, she recalls.

With the help of then-Principal Fredricka Hill, Mrs. Butler and a group of six parents organized the grass-roots Helping Hands organization to develop programs for 35 black Jeffers Hill students.

When parents from other schools heard about its success and asked to join, the organization expanded its focus beyond Jeffers Hill and black students.

One of Helping Hands' major projects, Saturday School, began its seventh year at Jeffers Hill this past weekend. The two-month, half-day program draws from 150 to 200 students every weekend, Mrs. Butler says.

Saturday School provides tutorial help and enrichment activities. offers parents who are busy during the week a way to get involved with their children's education.

"It really started to work," she said about Saturday School's first years. "The principal got teachers involved with the curriculum."

In the late 1980s, Helping Hands began working informally with school officials on programs that would boost black student achievement. Those volunteer efforts led to a formal partnership with the school system in 1991.

This past school year, Helping Hands launched a highly successful summer enrichment camp, letting 110 elementary and entering middle school students study language arts, math and other subjects over the summer.

Behind all of these projects is Ms. Butler, a Michigan native who, with the help of a supportive father, confounded her high school guidance counselor's predictions that she would succeed only in domestic work.

"It's hard to describe her energy and dedication and do it justice," said Karen Reeves, a Helping Hands board member who has known Mrs. Butler for eight years. "She conceived the idea of Helping Hands, and she has [galvanized] the community around it. It's remarkable.

Mrs. Butler was the only one of eight siblings to graduate from college. Her parents, who grew up in an era of segregation, never finished high school, but both have earned high school equivalencies.

Although Mrs. Butler once considered becoming a doctor, she eventually earned a community college degree in social work, and now serves on the Domestic Violence Center's executive board in Columbia.

Last year, she earned a bachelor's degree in management studies from the University of Maryland-University College.

She places a high value on responsibility, a philosophy that she has worked to impart to her five children, two of whom are in college.

For example, although she helps pay for her children's college educations, they must keep their grades up. If they don't, they will have to pay for college on their own.

And she sticks to that policy. One son who failed to keep a 2.0 GPA in college had to go into the Air Force for two years to earn tuition money. He's now on his own and earning a 3.0 GPA.

That same philosophy permeates Helping Hands, which Mrs. Butler says can help give children the education and knowledge to make what she calls "appropriate choices" in life.

"You can't teach a child how to make a choice," she said. "You have to prepare students with the information so they can make the choice. That's what education is about."

The job is a time-consuming one, she concedes. Mrs. Butler works as the head of the Marriage Bureau in Washington, D.C., where she conducts weddings at one of the city's court houses. But she considers her volunteer work with Helping Hands a full-time job.

She recently gave up her position as vice president of Voices for Children, a volunteer advocacy group in Columbia, to devote more time to Helping Hands, even though Helping Hands last year won grant money to hire a part-time executive director.

At Helping Hands, Ms. Butler hopes to expand the executive director's job -- which she held for six years -- into a permanent, full-time paid position for someone to fill.

"I've been doing it for all these years and it's like a part of me," she said. "I've tried to pass the torch many times and have someone else carry it for me, but it looks like I'll be holding on to it for a couple of years."

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