Sweet Charity

BY Stephanie Davis Smith | October 25, 2017 | Feature National

Sandra Lee has a fierce sense of social responsibility born from tough beginnings and an L.A.-based grandmother who expanded her worldview. From breast cancer to child hunger to AIDS organizations, the statuesque blonde is driven to help causes closest to her heart. Here, she tells us in her own words how her philanthropic passion came about.

Tell us why it is important for you to give back?
Any chance to use my personal resources and experiences to create opportunities for those who need it the most feels like a great gift to me. I’m not a Pollyanna—far from it; hardship and struggle are not foreign concepts to me. They are foundational aspects of my life—but so is the overwhelming satisfaction, joy and goodness that comes out of giving back. I appreciate the improvements made possible in peoples’ lives because of all of our collective works. Personally, it is how I am most fulfilled.

You are a survivor in more ways than one. What are the life experiences that led you to becoming so committed to charitable causes and advocacy?
I know firsthand what a life-changing difference charitable organizations can make, especially to a child, because I was one of those children. Some would say I was born into underprivileged circumstances. In fact, most people would call it a ‘terrible childhood.’ I think of it as a gift. It made me who I am today, and that is a woman who is committed to working hard, having a clear perspective, putting my family first and giving back. I was the oldest of five children born to a teen mother who was unable to care for us. There was substance abuse and other issues. I have had a huge hand in raising my siblings and took on that task when I was very young. They were, and remain, the loves of my life. Nothing meant more to me than seeing those four little people feel loved and cared for in a way that we never felt from our parents. I took any odd job in the neighborhood: I cleaned houses and used welfare and food stamps to feed my two brothers and two sisters, making sure they had food, clothes and the basics they needed, and focused on ensuring they knew they were as good as anybody else. If it were not for the charity of others, I never could have provided for my siblings.

When did you first realize that charitable work was something you had to commit yourself to and that you could make a difference?
My angel of a grandmother, Lorraine—whom I lived with for several years as a toddler on Grant Street in Santa Monica—took my sister and me on a monthlong pilgrimage to the Holy Land when I was 18. It was a trip organized by her church. We saw historically magnificent parts of the world, but we also saw children, families and the elderly in severe poverty. They were in situations far worse than any I had experienced. It opened my eyes to a need and a desperation that stayed with me. I felt ashamed for ever feeling sorry for myself, and I committed myself to help.

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