For "at least 10 years" -- fully half his young life -- Dennis Butler was an unpaid volunteer working with disabled youngsters at a local therapeutic recreation center.

He is now reconciled to spending the balance of his life worse off -- physically, at least -- than the people he used to help. As the result of a skiing accident earlier this year, he is paralyzed from the neck down. He can move his head, shrug his shoulders slightly, and that's about it. His arms and legs are useless.

"I suppose there's some irony there in the fact that I worked with handicapped people and now I'm in the situation I'm in," he said the other day, "but I guess I don't really think much about it. To be perfectly honest, there was a time when I might have thought that my good Samaritanship would keep me out of trouble. I don't think that way any more, but there's no doubt that the time I spent working with handicapped people has helped me to adjust to my situation."

He says he never thought much about the implications of what he was doing when he used to make all those trips from his Northwest Washington home to the Recreation Department's therapeutic center at 3030 G St. SE.

"Partly, I guess, it was just a way to spend more time with my father, who worked out there," said Butler, now 20, "but I got so I really liked it.

"At first, of course, I was too small to lift them or anything, so I mostly just did odds and ends." Later, he helped give showers, chaperoned camping trips and worked with the Special Olympics Program. His first paid work at the center was last summer, while on vacation from Williams College in Massachusetts.

He was on ski patrol at Williams last January when he "took an edge" (hit a patch of ice), tumbled down a slope and suffered permanent spinal cord damage.

Since then, the once-active youngster (skiing, rock climbing, spelunking, white-water rafting) has been trying to adjust to his disabilities and trying to complete his college education so that he can get a job that will relieve his family of some of the staggering financial costs associated with his situation.

He hopes to return to Williams next September, to continue his major in German. ("Maybe I could teach German, or find work as a translator.") Meanwhile, he is taking a course at George Washington University. Even that is a major undertaking -- physically and financially.

His divorced father, Charles, with whom he lives at 4121 Jennifer St. NW, has to load his wheelchair into a specially fitted van ($30,000), drive him to school and then return to bring him home, taking time away from his GS-11 job at the National Institutes of Health. The special $8,000 wheelchair, which Dennis operates with a mouthstick and a breathing tube, was bought by Medicaid, but many of the other expenses fall to his father.

"The expense is something you just have to try to deal with," says Charles Butler. "So far there's been well over $300,000 in medical expenses, and at least $50,000 of that is uninsured. He spent five months at the Rocky Mountain Regional Spinal Cord Center in Denver, and that's $7,000 a month. Blue Cross pays a lot of the expense, but not things like travel, which has already cost more than $5,000. The van and the cost of remodeling our house to make it wheelchair accessible and to allow Dennis to live entirely on the first floor has to come out of my pocket.

"Somebody has to be with him at all times. His grandmother is with him now, and his mother comes by every day to fix his dinner. Meanwhile, I'm his attendant, driver, father and whatever. He has to be turned over every five hours through the night, which means I don't get to sleep very much. Sure, it's rough on me, but think how rough it has to be on him. One minute, you're a happy, healthy person, skiing down hill. The next minute you can't even scratch your nose."