In February 2015, we published a story about Donnie Butterfield’s journey of coming out as a married (to a woman) father of three.
Donnie’s youngest son, Joey, was born with Down syndrome, has undergone multiple heart surgeries and suffers from Crohn’s disease and celiac disease. When we interviewed him in 2015, Donnie was a stay-at-home dad to Joey, while he shared custody of his two older children with his ex-wife.
Joey was in an out of the hospital so often that he’d missed more school than he’d attended that year. Caring for him was a full-time job for Donnie — and dating was pretty much out of the question.
So, we were thrilled to learn recently that 43-year-old Donnie has found a loving partner. Things have progressed to the point that Donnie and Joey have moved from Indiana to North Dakota to live with Donnie’s fiancé, 32-year-old Chad Wangler, and his two sons. They plan to tie the knot but haven’t set a date yet.
Chad with the boys
When we called Donnie to get the scoop, he told us that’s only the tip of the good news iceberg: Joey’s health has greatly improved and he rarely misses school anymore. At 13, he still weighs in at only 44 pounds, but the only doctor’s visits he needs these days are scheduled.
“He’s not been in the hospital in over a year now,” Donnie says.
Joey is now attending a regular middle school full-time. His new school’s effort to help him adjust socially recently appeared in a heartwarming local news segment, where Donnie was interviewed:
“They made him fit in with the kids because not a lot of kids had exposure to children with special needs and somebody with Down Syndrome that was so small,” says Donnie.
The school paired Joey with kids from other grades.
“That way they could learn about him and he could learn about them,” says Donnie.
Ever the proud dad, Donnie gushes about how well Joey is doing.
Donnie with Chad’s sons
“He’s very popular at school already,” he says. He marvels at how quickly Joey has built a community around himself the way he did in Indiana.
“It’s almost like we’re back at home — because at home, everywhere we went somewhere, somebody knew Joey. I didn’t know who they were, but they knew Joey.”
Joey’s new life includes getting to hang out with Chad’s sons and learn how kids without special needs behave. That, Donnie says, is a mixed bag.
“He’s learned how to get into the refrigerator and dig around for food,” he says. “We’re looking for locks for the refrigerator. He makes messes now.”
It’s tough for Donnie to be apart from his other two children. He hasn’t seen 10-year-old Rylan, who lives with her mom, or 22-year-old Joshua since the move. In Indiana, he lived closeby and saw them often.
“I struggled a little bit with the transition just getting used to things here and then missing my little girl and stuff like that,” he says. But having a partner is a breath of fresh air for Donnie: Some of the pressure of caring for Joey has been lifted by having Chad to help him. With his experience working at a nursing home, Chad has taken to helping care for Joey easily.
“Chad and Joey love each other and Chad takes care of him,” Donnie says. “He’s Joey’s best buddy.”
The feeling that the pressure of single parenting has been lifted is mutual. Before Donnie and Joey moved in, Chad working full-time and parenting alone meant the house was often a mess.
Chad, like Donnie, had kids with his wife and came out as gay while he was still married. Both men remain close with their former wives. Chad and his ex share custody of his kids.
“Just being a single dad just working a regular job, it was hard making ends meet. It’s definitely different now that he’s here.”
Things are still tough financially for the couple; Chad works as a custodian and driver at a nursing home. With Joey’s health and school attendance more stable, Donnie has begun searching for a job.
But for now, when Chad comes home, Donnie will often have dinner in the works and the morning’s mess taken care of, taking huge pressure off Chad.
“If the boys are sick from school, I’m here and I take care of the boys while he’s at work,” Donnie says. “It’s kind of a mutual thing. We take care of each other.”
Chad jokingly describes meeting Donnie like this: “He stalked me on Facebook!”
Donnie says he was drawn to Chad because he was also a single dad, so he contacted him out of the blue. “I could tell that he loved his boys and it appeared that he was a good dad.”
Chad had just left a difficult relationship and wasn’t too keen on getting involved with someone new — but the father of two was willing to make an exception for Donnie.
The couple became official about a year ago, spanning the distance between Chad’s home in North Dakota and Donnie’s in Indiana with visits and vacations together.
His boys, Kamrin, 9, and Kiptyn, 6, can be rambunctious, fighting and wrestling constantly, but they quickly adjusted to treating Joey gently.
“They are really understanding and really good to him,” he says. The family does everything together, whether going to Joey’s regular doctor’s appointments or dropping Kamrin off for guitar lessons.
“I think the move for us has been a positive change,” Donnie says. “Joey gets more attention from the both of us. When I’m not able to do something for him, Chad’s able to be here for him now.”