A Coastal Connection

07 Jul 2020

The local surf community rallies around a couple’s special nonprofit, Hope from Helen


If your kids know anything about stormwater, you can probably thank Jennifer Butler. Her annual demonstrations to 8th graders explain how stormwater affects our environment. If your kids know the surf conditions at Wrightsville Beach, you should probably thank her husband Tony whose website and live cam give regular updates.

The duo met at Red Dogs, a popular Wrightsville Beach hangout, and while forging separate careers have combined their efforts to lead a nonprofit, Hope from Helen, which is making our community a better place to live.

Jenn grew up in rural New Jersey on the end of a cul-de-sac that backed up to the woods. The location fueled her passion for the outdoors. She and her dog explored together. Jenn also ran track and field with her dad as her coach and was good enough at gymnastics to enter regional and state competitions.

When Jenn went on college campus tours with him, she picked UNCW. Like many other UNCW students from her home state, she started in the marine biology program. Licensed in K-6 education as well as environmental education, Jenn started her position with the city in 2002.

“It’s never a dull moment,” Jenn says. Working from home for now, she is responsible for outreach and education of our community about water quality issues and solutions. She uses a stormwater demonstration site at Anne McCrary Park on Randall Parkway to demonstrate ground water quality improvement projects that can be done at home, such as impervious pavers and water gardens. Some of what she does is funded by grants. “At least 14,” she recalls.

Her program for 8th graders incorporates Enviroscape®, a plastic, scaled down model of a water shed which can go into the classroom for presentations. She estimates she does about 70 each year to several hundred students. “All of the 8th grade science classes. And I write the insert that goes in the city-wide newsletter called The Stormwater Watch,” Jenn says. It includes testing and monitoring information provided for the city by UNCW.

Tony grew up in Kinston, but his dad’s job brought him to Wilmington for middle school, then back to Kinston. While here he got his first taste of surfing, and never looked back. His older brother, Ron, would take him to Emerald Isle or Topsail while he was in high school. Tony got his associate degree in business from Lenoir Community College, then transferred to UNCW where he took advantage of proximity to the beach to hone his craft.

Tony planned to use his geography degree to travel extensively after graduation, but a chance call came from the owner of Sweetwater Surf Shop. His long-term goal had been to own a surf shop, and he was offered the chance to manage Sweetwater. Tony joined them in 1998, became a managing partner a few years later, but left active participation in 2012 to pursue other passions.

While at Sweetwater, Tony started WBlivesurf.com. His brother has similar sites for Emerald Isle and Atlantic Beach. “I nearly gave up because it was such a difficult undertaking trying to figure out the technology, but I persisted, and it paid off. The focus of that site is to be a community hub,” he says. The live cam covers a five-block area from Charlotte to Stone Streets.

In addition to the website, Tony has worked in customer service and sales since leaving Sweetwater. His current position as sales manager for an internationally distributed product has expanded his already extensive network.

It’s this network that has proven its worth for he and Jenn as they manage Hope from Helen, the 501c3 they set up after his mother died from cancer.

Tony’s older sister died from cancer at age 26. “When my mother got cancer, it just seemed I had to do everything I could to prevent her from passing away as well,” Tony says. Everything included raising funds to fight the stage 3 lung cancer and later breast cancer. “My dad had been laid off from work about three months prior; to save money, they did not keep the insurance,” he says.

Tony reached out to friends on his website’s forum. “I typed a really long post about family and love and not wanting to lose my mother, and I was going to do everything I could do to help her pay medical bills. Then my friends that frequented the forum came up with fundraising ideas,” says Tony. They started with yard sales, then concerts, a basketball tournament and a silent auction. The tagline Hope for Helen was used. “We had no idea how to go about doing the silent auction, but it seemed like everybody came out to help,” says Tony. The first was in December 2005. They expected maybe 300 people; 1000 showed up. They ran out of the free food donated by Josh Vach, K38 and Tower 7 owner, and ordered pizza. That first auction raised $39,000; other events raised an additional $19,000. “I think it was a combination of our friends and the closeness of the surf community. It’s a small tight knit community,” Tony says. The website’s reach across the southeast also helped.

Before his mom died in 2006, they had a conversation about the difficulty of carrying on without her. “She said, “Sugar, you’re just going to have to. We all have to.” So, she was always trying to make us feel better about the situation. I mentioned we had such a great result from the fundraiser that I wanted to carry on. She replied that it was an awesome idea,” Tony recalls. They agreed to change the name to Hope from Helen and to help other people.

Their broad mission statement encompasses issues important to Tony and Jenn: education, environment, animal welfare, and help for those who are sick or in need as was the origin.

“We’ve reached more than $1 million since 2005,” Tony says.

The silent auction continues to be the biggest fundraiser, but their 501c3 status allows them to help smaller groups or organizations without the status, such as Joe’s Bucket Bash volleyball tournament, which helps individuals fighting illnesses and named for the first recipient.

While Tony’s expansive network is integral to their success, Jenn is the project manager. “I’m the rock,” she says. “I’m not going to lie; I do a lot of the work behind the scenes. I have a 23-page guidance document which I’ve compiled over the years to help me remember everything to do. It comes off like magic, but it’s difficult.”

Hope from Helen is staged at the Blockade Runner by dozens of volunteers each December. “They’ve been extremely supportive,” Jenn says. “Josh promised Tony that he would never ever run out of food again, and man he was not lying. He would put on a spread, and he didn’t charge us. He wanted to do that to give back to the local community.” Vach died from cancer last year, but his widow, Cindy, continues the support.

The Butlers aren’t sure what will happen with the auction this year due to COVID-19, but they’re hoping it can continue as in the past. Despite the uncertainty, Tony emphasized people can still donate throughout the year through the website HopefromHelen.com.

“We remain so humbled because people feel an obligation to help. It’s been very heartwarming to have the support we have,” says Tony.

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