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For more than 15 years, Deidre Lee has been a guiding light for East African women who reside in City Heights.
Through her volunteer efforts, dozens of women and their families are better able to adjust to unfamiliar social and cultural norms, as well as constraints they face as immigrants and refugees.
“They know they can trust me and that means a lot,” says Lee, whose volunteer role has brought her into the lives of families from war-torn countries such as Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan.
For her ongoing efforts on behalf of The Ladies of City Heights (LCH), LISC San Diego recently awarded the nonprofit agency one of its Small Business Relief Grants, funded by Verizon.
The Ladies of City Heights’ goal is to develop evidence-based, trauma-informed social service workshops, especially related to job training. Due to Covid-19, jobs were hugely impacted among the newer immigrants, refugees, and recent arrivals.
Born and raised in Watts, Deidre has devoted herself to a life-long pursuit of education.
Her academic credits include a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University (vocational education); two master’s degrees from Alliant International University (marital and family therapy, and school psychology); and a master’s from the University of Phoenix (early childhood education).
What are the origins of The Ladies of City Heights?
The story begins about 17 years ago when I was in the post office at University and Fairmont and I happened to see an African woman who was trying to get postal workers to write her mailing address on an envelope.
Right away, I understood what was going on. I went up to her and said, “I can help.” I took out my driver’s address and pointed to my address on my driver’s license and she said “address?” and I told her, yes, “address.” Then I showed her how to write her address on the envelope.
What happened after that?
I went home and decided that’s what I wanted to do, to help the African community, but I didn’t know exactly what. As word spread about my services, I eventually opened a community office and now we are to support dozens of immigrants from 10 African countries and four continents.
Why inspires you to lend a helping hand?
Giving back inspires and motivates me to learn about the differences as well as the similarity of their cultures. I’ve met so many people from different regions of Africa who are always so gracious and grateful.
Since you’ve been doing this for a while, you must be close to some families…
I know families for whom I’ve been involved in the most important events of their lives. The adults call me Miss Lee and their children are like my grandchildren. Along the way, I’ve seen their births, graduations, weddings, all stages of their lives.
Besides filling out forms correctly, what other principles do you stress?
Because of Covid-19, the community has had to accept a hard lesson about the importance of finances. With hard work and resilience, they have learned to adjust and maintain a life for themselves and their families by being focused and organized despite financial setbacks.
How do you feel when you see signs of progress?
The struggle will always be ongoing, but I’m proud that more and more these families have learned how to support themselves, mostly with jobs in the service economy, as nurses, teachers, taxi drivers, anything to get started.
What do you admire most about the people you serve?
It’s their resilience, their strength, their traditions. When you hear their personal stories of enduring unspeakable cruelty, you get a better understanding about how they have suffered. At the same time, they speak proudly of the beauty of their homeland, their traditions, and the history of their people.