By Luciana Chavez, Special to Merced College

See Lee, the new CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County (BGCMC) was a new college graduate and working as a gang and teen pregnancy prevention specialist for Valley Community Schools (VCS) in Merced when she administered a survey to 200 of their students.

Lee specifically remembers one question asking, “Do you want to make a positive impact on your community?”

The continuation students skipped survey questions. Not everyone finished. Others didn’t answer many questions at all. But every student answered that one question. And every student answered, “Yes.”

“It was so telling,” Lee said. “These so-called ‘bad’ kids were good kids who had made some bad decisions, but wanted to do good things and be great people. That resonated with me.”

Now you understand why Lee’s curriculum vitae is packed with work on behalf of disadvantaged young people throughout her home county.

“I decided then that I wanted to work in social justice,” said Lee, the first Hmong and Asian American woman to lead the BGCMC. “I wasn’t sure how I would do that. I just knew I had to do more than I was.”

And now you understand why the Boys & Girls Club turned to Lee to be its new leader, as it completes a third decade and moves onto a fourth.

“I hope we are a beacon of hope and champions for all kids in Merced County,” Lee said. “I want this place to feel like Disneyland in a way. I want it to feel happy and dynamic. I want people to understand that if adults know the problems and are in a position to help, they should.”

Born in Minnesota, Lee and her family moved to California in time for her to start school at Burbank Elementary and attend Chenowith Elementary and Tenaya Middle School before becoming an honors student at Golden Valley High.

Yet, Lee never planned to go to college.

“I was an honors student, but I wanted to be with my friends who were all in other classes,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of their social scene. And because my brothers had dropped out of school, I wanted to drop out, too. I wanted to be cool like them.”

When her mother died of cancer after her GVHS graduation, Lee’s life changed in more ways than one.

“My mom was the reason I stayed in high school,” said Lee, who raised her five siblings in her mother’s place. “That’s when I figured the only way to move on in life was to go to college.”

At Merced College, Lee met a communications instructor who recognized her drive and encouraged her to go into business or became a news broadcaster.

“I said, ‘Yeah, right,’” Lee said. “But it was the first encouragement I received. Here I was not wanting to be in college, and there he was thinking of all these things I could be doing with my life.”

Lee figured she could help most as a lawyer. She pursued an AA in University Studies at Merced College, a BA in Political Science at Stanislaus State, and a master’s in Business Administration at Fresno State.

But, even working closely with disadvantaged children at her first job, Lee didn’t think she was doing enough.

“So I tried to figure out all of the ways I could make an impact,” she said. “That’s why I got into so many different things after that.”

Lee took over as CEO of the local Boys & Girls Club in January after honing skills and building an extensive network of contacts. She’d already worked with the club as an operations and program supervisor with Equus, the company that provides workforce development services to Merced County.

She partnered with community leaders and families as a HUB coordinator with Building Health Communities. And her thrust as a member of the Multicultural Promises Board was keeping girls away from gangs.

And on and on.

Lee still thinks back to those VCS students she met at her first job, how they’d all grown up in Merced but never even seen UC Merced 5 miles away.

“We can’t always take these kids into the world, but I hope we can bring the world to them at the Boys & Girls Club.” Lee said. “I want this place to be the world for them, so they’re exposed to endless possibilities.”

The club has put some great ideas in motion. They’re offering summer camps with Merced City Schools, Weaver School District, Los Banos Unified and Gustine Unified. They’re partnering with the Family Resource Center at the Merced County Office of Education to help traumatized children, even more vulnerable due to the pandemic, develop resilience.

That is a small taste of what is to come under Lee. As she has done throughout her career, she’ll approach the work with curiosity, as a seeker of the truth and long-term solutions.

“The one thing I’ve learned in my first three months is how much possibility we have here,” Lee said. “There is so much we can see and do. Even if it’s a big responsibility, I am excited.”