Branching out: The inspiration behind Ability Tree

People often view disability as an inconvenience, but for Joe Butler, it is a full-time ministry.

Joe Butler centers his entire profession in ministering to disabled individuals through Ability Tree, a non-profit organization he founded in June, 2010.

For Butler, a ministry to serve the disabled was something that had been on his heart for a long time. It all started when his son Micah was diagnosed with a disability.

“My wife and I have three kids, and our middle child, Micah, was diagnosed with developmental delays when he was nine months old. It started in early intervention, receiving physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy multiple times a week. He had a seizure when he was two and a half, was diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy and later on the Autism Spectrum.”

Butler explained, “As a young family, it was difficult finding resources and raising a child and other children who didn’t have disabilities, but it impacted our family in a significant way as well as finding an inclusive, accessible church that we could go to as a family that was open for Micah to come into and inviting for him.”

Butler said he really wanted to sense God’s calling in his life.

“The week that Micah was born, we had already felt a call to full-time vocational ministry. I wasn’t quite sure where God was directing us though,” said Butler.

In 2009, nine years after Micah’s birth, Butler had the vision of a disability outreach center, now known as Ability Tree.

“We envisioned it being in the heart of communities across the U.S.; Siloam Springs is our first Ability Tree,” Butler said. “We do operate programming for families and community events in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and we’re connected to individuals and churches around the country in about 20 states. The vision is to branch out and develop Ability Tree branches in other parts of the country.”

Butler’s colleagues view him as visionary, and they say he is also a pleasure to work with. Paul and Sherry Bolstad, an elderly couple who works at Ability Tree, have favorable things to say about Butler’s demeanor.

“He’s very helpful; he’s a lot of fun,” said Sherry. “He likes working with the kids and has a lot of fun with them.”

Paul described him as “approachable, warm, energetic.”

Butler’s ministry also reaches outside Ability Tree, whether it’s through a one-on-one interaction with him or even a mission trip.

“I’ve met ministry leaders from around the country and around the world even. I had some opportunities to go to East Africa and to teach some disability studies courses overseas. It’s one of the highlights of my life so far,” said Butler.

Jason Kelly, the youth pastor of First Baptist Church of Siloam Springs, said that he could see the potential in Butler’s ministry from the first day he met him.

“I first met Joe three years ago, maybe closer to four,” said Kelly. “I met him on a Sunday morning here. He came and did a ministry segment on what Ability Tree is and shared his testimony. We put together a training afternoon a couple weeks after that, and we had a lot of people show up to get trained to help minister to families or kids who have special needs.”

Jacob Stratman, an English professor at John Brown University who is good friends with Butler, said that he has the right lens when it comes to ministering to people.

“The key thing right away is that you get an understanding of enthusiasm and passion, and with that, commitment,” said Stratman. “He’s very passionate and committed to people, not causes. He’s committed to individuals and families in their search for human flourishing, just to be able to do their thing.”

With each step he takes, Joe Butler continues to push for disabled individuals to flourish in the community. As he said, “Including families with disabilities isn’t rocket science, but it is intentional.”