Lily Butler 'touched way more lives than we were ever aware'

The Run With Lily 5K, in memory of Lily Butler, will take place Saturday morning in Liberty.

Lily Butler 'touched way more lives than we were ever aware'
Lily Butler during a rock-climbing outing at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. 

They lined up to offer their encouragement, to pull the family in tight embrace, to share their own memories of Lily Claire Butler.

And before her funeral at Pleasant Garden Baptist Church on that summer Sunday evening in 2021, Lily Claire Butler's legacy became clear for her parents, Carol and Chip.

"Different mothers, with their daughter standing right there as they're coming across giving their condolences, said, 'Just wanted you to know, your daughter saved my daughter's life,'" Chip Butler says, his voice breaking.

"She had been talking to them online," Carol Butler adds, "the girls that were struggling that she had made connections with through running."

"'My daughter was contemplating suicide,'" Chip continues.

"'My daughter was going to end her life.'

"'Your daughter talked her out of it.'


"Since then, we've learned of two more."

Lily Claire Butler, who was 17 and a rising senior at Providence Grove High School, lost her fight with an eating disorder and its mental health challenges and took her life on July 20, 2021. She'll be remembered Saturday in Liberty at the second Run With Lily 5K, a 3.1-mile road race and walk that will benefit the Randolph County Family Crisis Center and The Oaks Community in Pleasant Garden.

The lifetime prevalence of eating disorders in teens 13-18 is 2.7 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Eating disorders are twice as prevalent among girls (3.8%) as in boys (1.5%).

"There's just not awareness; it's coming around," Carol says. "So many people just don't understand it until it affects you in your own personal life with your family."

A life of sports, school and faith

By any measure, Lily Butler succeeded in everything she attempted.

As a freshman at Providence Grove in fall 2018, Lily qualified for the state Class 2-A cross country championship as an individual runner. As a junior during the season delayed because of COVID and ending in January 2021, she led her team to a 10th-place finish. She served as a team captain and did likewise for the girls track and field team.

Lily Butler in Kernersville for the state Class 2-A cross country championships.

Lily also played soccer, and the basketball program retired her jersey number 12. She skied with her father.

Lily Butler during a ski trip to Utah with her father.

And Lily rafted the Upper Gauley River in West Virginia with him when she was 14, a year younger than the rules permitted.

"Dad," Lily told him, "you know if you put that I'm 15 on that paper, I'll go with it."

"So guess what we did?" Chip says. "She rafted the Upper Gauley when she was 14 and wanted to sit in the front, so when the raft doubled up, she was right there."

Lily Butler's prom photo.

Lily's drive extended well beyond athletic pursuits. She'd complete a project for a class a week before it was due.

"And it was top-notch," Carol says. "She would just spend hours and hours. We're like, 'Go to bed and quit coloring that danged poster!'"

Lily once made a 96 on a test, though some of her classmates didn't fare as well. When their teacher offered a chance to retake the test to raise their grades, Lily saw an opportunity.

"To make 100 to bring her average to a 98," Chip says.

And she'd watch YouTube videos of surgeons performing knee surgeries, showing interest in becoming one herself.

Her excellence in the classroom put her in position to lead the Beta Club in her senior year. A nomination for the prestigious Morehead-Cain Scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill seemed likely. Lily also started a business making bows for dogs to benefit the Happy Hills Animal Foundation in Staley.

A regular with her parents and her brother, Carter, at Pleasant Garden Baptist, Lily also immersed herself in her faith. If she wasn't stay up late for school work, Chip says, "she'd be in her Bible highlighting, writing little notes and tabs."

And she lived that faith. Though she was a selection for the homecoming court, Lily knew all too well from her own struggles that teen life isn't easy.

"She sought out people at lunchtime that were sitting by themselves," Chip says. "They didn't fit in. Not popular. Whatever. Lily would go sit with them and talk."

'She's in trouble'

Her love for running and her early success as a high school athlete turned out to be facades for what took place inside Lily's mind.

"We're thinking, 'Hey great, she's athletic, she loves the sport," Chip says. "Hindsight tells us that was a coping mechanism to escape. At the time, we were unaware. Her eating habits were such that, 'Hey, you know, if I'm thinner, lighter, I can run faster and put out a better time.' So then we started saying, 'Well, no, we need to watch your calorie intake. We need to watch our protein levels, we need to do the rest. We need to hydrate.'"

Lily's weight and her mood prompted her parents in early 2019 to seek help. A health and wellness checkup with Lily's pediatrician delivered the proof.

"Her pediatrician right then said we need to go to Cone Hospital," Chip says. "She's in trouble. She's in crisis."

Lily spent a week and a half at Cone. Her 15th birthday, on March 11, passed with Lily as a patient during a stay at the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders in Chapel Hill.

"We just needed to get some weight on her," Chip says.

"She was so physically malnourished," Carol adds.

"Your brain starts deteriorating when you're below 80 percent of your normal body weight," Chip says.

After a few weeks of inpatient treatment, the family then secured a place for Lily at Clementine's location in South Miami, Fla. She would receive treatment there for three months, with Carol and Chip flying in every weekend for a parents session on Fridays and a one-hour visit with Lily on Saturdays. Clementine's program, which supports teens and their families, includes an education plan, and the family also hired a tutor to assist Lily.

"They were phenomenal," Carol says of Clementine.

Lily left the program on June 6, 2019, and returned to her family in Liberty for the first time since February.

"Lily had progressed enough through the process," Chip says, "through the counseling, that they felt like that she was given tools and coping mechanisms and had shown a willingness to be a successful outcome."

But Lily also would be forced into a nine-month break from all sports.

"That just about did her in," Chip says. "That was traumatic."

A year later, in the still-early months of the pandemic, the Butlers marked the one-year anniversary of her return home on June 6, 2020.

"Doing fine," Chip says. "Looks good. Healthy. Looks real good."

Lily returned to sports, although the N.C. High School Athletic Association delayed the seasons during 2020-21, her junior year. She ran cross country, which wrapped up in January 2021 instead of its traditional November finish, then played basketball. Her parents asked her to choose between soccer and track for the spring season, and Lily chose track to run the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters and to compete in the 4x800 relay with her teammates.

Lily Butler during the track and field season in 2021.

But the Butlers began to see new signs of trouble as the track season culminated in June 2021. Lily's choices on sunglasses and her hair style were attempts to hide the weight loss that become evident in her face.

"We knew she was struggling," Chip says.

At the state Class 2-A track and field championship meet on June 26, 2021, in Greensboro, Lily's struggles played out inside A&T's Truist Stadium. Lily ran the first leg of the 4x800 relay for Providence Grove.

"She comes in, in her two laps, last," Chip says. "She would be running fourth or fifth, normally. We'd run against some of these girls in regionals.

"It hit us like a ton of bricks."

The Butlers tried protein shakes for Lily, in hopes of helping her gain weight and be strong enough to run cross country as a senior.

"You've got to have enough fuel to be able to run these races, or you can't run," Chip told her.

"I can't let that happen," Lily responded.

"But the eating disorder will tell you whatever you want to hear," Carol says. "It's going to do whatever it wants to do."

With the summer break having arrived and her eating disorder exposed again, Lily went to Baton Rouge, La., for two weeks to visit her aunt, Shannon Stage.

"To get her away, to clear her head," Chip says.

"She was terrified," Carol says. "She was so incredibly anxious."

Her parents, armed with more results from a recent doctor's office visit, told Lily by phone in Baton Rouge that they would need to resume shakes when she came back.

Lily returned July 19, and she worked that night at Captain Tom's Seafood and Steaks. The next day, her parents asked her to drink a protein shake.

"I don't know that I can do this," Lily told them.

Instead of blending her own shake, Lily asked her parents to make it.

While they did, Lily slipped out of the house, got into her car and drove away.

She didn't return.

"The only thing we can think of," her father says, "is the pain was so intense that she thought that was her only way to make it stop."

When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Freedom Park, 800 Hamilton Dr., Liberty.
Entry fee: $30 for race-day registration, cash only. Online registration is closed.
Beneficiaries: Randolph County Family Crisis Center, The Oaks Community.
Learn more:

'Be kind'

The Run With Lily 5K is a way for the Butlers to help raise funds in support of others who face the challenges their daughter faced. But it's also a way to cope.

"The waves, when they come, the immense grief, with it being over a year and a half, it's not as intense, it doesn't last as long," Carol says.

"But it still comes around.

"And sometimes I just want to do the 'Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?'

"I can get a little angry. And get a little sad."

The Butlers are comforted in knowing that the ripples of Lily's life extend well beyond North Carolina, beyond the girls whose parents spoke to them at the visitation. After Lily left Clementine, other girls who remained in the program and who were permitted to use their phones would call on her for support.

And on that trip to visit her aunt, Lily met a boy who had asked her out for coffee. He also needed an emotional lift that she could give.

When the Butlers found a restaurant card with his name and phone number in Lily's purse after she died, they called him and broke the news. The Butlers flew him here for her service, and he stayed for a week and they continue to stay in touch today.

"The spirit of Lily touched way more lives than we were ever aware, way more people," Chip says. "She was more of a Mama kind, mentoring, encouraging. ...

"To her dying day, Lily was still reaching out, recognizing, helping, being kind, making a difference."

About 400 runners and walkers are expected to join the Butlers in celebrating Lily on Saturday morning. Some of her former Providence Grove schoolmates, now college freshmen, will be there, and so will friends of the family.

The Run With Lily 5K will take start and end at Freedom Park, just a couple of miles from where Lily's body rests in Fairview Cemetery. On her headstone are the words:

"You can be anything. ... Be kind."

"Lily was struggling inside," Chip says. "And one of the ways that she kept her eating disorder at bay was to help comfort, console, coach, befriend someone else."

National Institute of Mental Health: An overview of eating disorders, signs and symptoms, risk factors, treatments and therapies and more information.
• 988: If you or someone you know is struggling or having thoughts of suicide, call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or chat at In life-threatening situations, call 911.
Cone Behavioral Health: 700 Walter Reed Dr., Greensboro. (336) 832-9700.
National Eating Disorders Association: (800) 931-2237. (800) 852-8336 | Text 839863
National Runaway Safe Line: (800) 786-2929.
Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration: (877) 726-4727.
Guilford County Behavioral Health Centers:
(336) 890-2700.
The Oaks Therapeutic Community: (336) 338-9291.
N.C. Department of Health and Human Services: Injury and Violence Prevention Branch.