Butch Lawrence started over three times last year.
He's lived in the woods more than once. There was a time when “home” was his car, parked at a local gas station.
Lawrence has four children younger than age 6.
“I want them to have what I never did – a dad and toys and school pictures,” said Lawrence, 35.
The Lawrences are among a growing number of families in La Plata County battling hunger and poverty in the wake of the nation's worst recession. Social service officials and advocates say many local families with histories of stability now need help to pay for basic needs: food, shelter and clothing. Families considered needy before the economic downturn are finding it harder to pull themselves out of poverty.
While each family's story is different, advocates said one thing is not: The community knows these families, but not their plight. They are waiters in local restaurants, workers in the region's oil fields, plumbers, builders, students and volunteers. They are your neighbors.
Lawrence said his past is checkered and filled with pain. He grew up in a world of violence. His childhood included time spent living on the streets and bouncing around the foster care system.
Since becoming a father, he's worked hard to break the cycle of abuse and pain. Every day, Lawrence said he trots forward in his relentless effort to build strong, loving relationships with his children and be a role model of honesty and hard work.
His “biggest dream” is of a time when Samantha, 6; Wes, 5; Michael, 3; and Adam, 3, get to see their dad leave for work each morning in a suit.
Instead of achieving his dream, he's watching his world crumble slowly around him.
Lawrence and his ex-wife, Pam Clark, moved to Durango in 2004, shortly after Wes was born. They got by financially, but money was always tight.
Occasionally, unexpected expenses would arise, and they'd turn to the Durango Food Bank to get by. They were proud of their little family and filled with an independent spirit, Lawrence said.
“We wanted to do it on our own,” Clark said in a telephone interview from Lakeside, Ariz.
Butch often worked multiple jobs.
Then the twins came.
“My family was outgrowing my career,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence worked then and now for Smart Enterprises, a full-service glass company in Durango.
Clark hoped to work more to help with the rising expenses. But she had no degree and likely would have been relegated to a low-wage service job with odd work hours. Finding affordable child care for four small children was next to impossible, Clark and Lawrence said.
So they headed to Arizona to be closer to family.
There, they found child care but no work.
Clark returned to college full-time with hopes of landing a better job and building a more stable life.
But the financial strain was too much for the couple, and the marriage fell apart, they said.
Lawrence returned to Durango hoping to regain his old job. The company had no open positions, however, and he struggled to find other work.
He and the children spent more than two months living in a campground.
Lawrence did odd jobs for campground neighbors and nearby homes to pay for firewood and gas for the camp stove he cooked their meals on. A bear ate Wes' birthday cake that year.
A part-time job eventually opened at Smart Enterprises. And after meeting the family one afternoon this fall, a Kansas woman offered an elderly relative's home to Lawrence and the children for the school year.
The home had been vandalized after sitting vacant for months. The Lawrences will have to live through ongoing repairs. Their own needs and challenges abound.
Lawrence gets some help paying for food and day care from local and federal government programs. But he says it's not enough to allow him to get back to self-sufficiency, let alone save for future rainy days.
Lawrence had to burn some of the children's summer clothes for warmth when fall brought an early cold snap before he could obtain firewood. That was after he burned the precious, rare pieces of purple heart cedar wood he'd been saving to make his daughter a jewelry box for Christmas.
There is no stove. Family meals are cooked outside on a small camping grill.
And while the children always eat until their bellies are full, the same can't be said for Lawrence.
At dinner on a recent night, the children offered prayers of thanks for their new home and warm food on the table – something they don't take for granted. And they gave thanks for their dad.
The children each ate healthy portions of corn, potatoes and ham that night. Samantha noticed her father had but a small bowl of potatoes for himself and a piece of sandwich bread, so she began emptying some of her food onto his plate.
When Lawrence asked her if it was because she was concerned about him or because she didn't want the food, Samantha gestured to him. He assured her that he had plenty, and Samantha returned the food to her plate and ate every morsel.
“He's a wonderful dad, and like most good dads, he'd do anything for his children,” Clark said.
The children smile a lot and appear to be happy, well-adjusted and well-behaved.
Clark, who has visited and seen the mangled home, said the situation is far from ideal, but she's grateful.
“If it wasn't for that random, generous person, they'd be homeless,” Clark said.
Writer's note: Because of persistent financial struggles made worse over the holidays when Lawrence experienced a further reduction of work hours, the couple was forced to split up their four children for the foreseeable future. Lawrence and Clark's youngest two children now are in Arizona with Clark. Their eldest two children remain living with Lawrence and are enrolled in school locally.