At the darkest moment of his life, Chris Butts turned to his former lacrosse coach and mentor, Tony Lawrence, for guidance. Several years earlier, Mr. Lawrence had brought the lacrosse program to Riverhead, introducing the game to Mr. Butts and paving the way for him to earn a college scholarship.
“He’s like my second dad,” Mr. Butts said.
As Mr. Butts struggled to comprehend the sudden death in 2009 of his older brother, Calvin, who was fatally stabbed outside a Hampton Bays diner, he considered giving up on lacrosse — and college.
Mr. Lawrence urged him to push forward. He recalled visiting Mr. Butts at his home after the stabbing.
“I said, listen, sometimes we do things for ourselves. This particular time, you have to go back and do it for Calvin,” he said. “Calvin would want what’s best for you.”
Calvin was 26 when he died.
Chris Butts and Tony Lawrence could never have known at that time that their lives would intersect over a second tragedy that would forever bond their families. Just as the Butts family had to learn how to pick up the pieces after losing Calvin, Mr. Lawrence faced an all-too-similiar situation in 2015, when his 17-year-old daughter, Danielle, and her mother, Tanya, were both killed. Danielle’s younger sister, Brandy, managed to escape the house and survived.
Suddenly, Mr. Lawrence had to convey the same message to his own child that had helped lift Chris Butts.
Not long after Calvin’s death, his mother, Sharon, began organizing a scholarship in his memory. This past year, Brandy Lawrence, now 18, was honored as a recipient of that scholarship for her perseverance in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy. In June, she graduated with honors from Longwood High School and now attends St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. She’s excelled academically, earning a full college scholarship, and has set her sights on using her story to advocate for people who have no voice.
On March 16, Brandy and her brother, Jamal Pines, 24, shared their experiences at a scholarship fundraising dinner in Atlanta organized by Mr. Butts.
After losing his brother, he went on to play lacrosse at the University of Detroit Mercy and later, with Mr. Lawrence’s assistance, ended up in Georgia, where he earned a master’s degree and ultimately became a teacher in Atlanta, where he remained.
While the scholarship has been going strong in the Riverhead area, Mr. Butts wanted to expand it.
“It had been in my heart to start doing it here since I’m in education here,” he said. “We’ve been trying to perfect it, to get it geared toward kids who have gone through adverse situations. It doesn’t have to be violence.”
Mr. Butts organized this month’s fundraiser as a way to jump-start the scholarship in Atlanta. He reached out to Mr. Lawrence to see if he would be willing to help. Brandy’s brother also lives in Georgia and is a Riverhead High School graduate.
Mr. Lawrence said he felt it would be more meaningful for the youth attending the dinner to hear directly from Brandy and Jamal, instead of from him.
“They could relate to them and see their struggle and from taking a negative experience and turning it into a positive one,” he said.
In a college essay, Brandy wrote about losing her mother and sister. She described the immediate pain, being unable to eat or sleep, the challenge to a 14-year-old of switching schools, building new relationships and, in many ways, starting a new life.
“When I look back at the condition I was in and compared it to how I am now, I can definitely notice a whole new me,” Brandy wrote. “Through this experience I learned the true meaning of forgiveness.”
She shared similar words during the scholarship dinner.
“[Brandy] and Chris have been through a lot and it bonded them even closer,” said Sharon Butts, who has known Brandy since birth. “Two families came together.”
She said the support her son received for the scholarship in Georgia was “overwhelming.” It was a testament to the kind of man Chris is, she said, that he could generate that much support for a scholarship in memory of someone the people there had never known.
“I was amazed and very proud of him,” she said.
When Mr. Lawrence describes Chris Butts, one word always comes to his mind: “Magnanimous.”
“Everyone that knows him and comes in contact with him can see that. He’s got a touch with the youth,” he said.
During his brief life, Calvin left a positive impact on so many people he met and that legacy continues today through his brother and scholarship recipients like Brandy.
Sharon and Chris Butts both said it’s hard to believe nearly 10 years have passed since Calvin’s death.
“A day and time, minutes don’t go by without me thinking about him and missing him,” Ms. Butts said. “But I know he’s smiling down on us that we’re doing positive things in his name.”
Mr. Butts remembered Calvin as “the best big brother” and someone who always believed in people. Even today, he said, people still share stories with him of times when Calvin helped them.
He watched in awe as Brandy shared her personal tragedy with the audience at the dinner, the way she stayed composed.
After she finished, Chris took the microphone, applauded her and said how much he admired her.
“I know the place I was after Calvin was murdered. I was not in a state of mind or a place in my life to talk about it,” he said. “As I start to talk about it, I’m getting choked up and it’s 10 years later. I was saying that, literally. So it doesn’t get any easier but doing things like this and turning it into something positive and giving back, that’s what keeps me going and keeps the Butts family going.”
Top Photo caption: Jamal Pines and Brandy Lawrence, whose mother and sister were killed in 2015, joined Sharon Butts (center), mother of the late Calvin Butts, at a March 16 dinner to raise funds for a memorial scholarship in her son’s name. (Credit: Paige/Courtesy)