Ex-nurse donates $3.8M for health unit in Downtown Eastside where she worked in 1950s

Lily Lee’s first contribution to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Chinatown communities was as a 21-year-old community nurse in the 1950s when she was just graduating from the University of British Columbia.

Lee vaccinates at Strathcona, works as a school nurse and acts as a liaison between health and wellbeing, and occasionally encounters “too much drinking geeks”.

Li, 88, is now making another contribution — a personal donation of $3.8 million to the Community Health Department, which will serve the Chinatown and Downtown Eastside communities.

The under-construction wellness center at 58 West Hastings Street will be a 50,000-square-foot complex, scheduled to open in spring 2024.

Vancouver Coastal Health, which operates the facility, said in a statement that it will provide a wide range of services for those in need of specialized mental health and addiction issues, home health and aged care.

Ms. Lee, who donated last week through the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, said her early experiences in the community more than 65 years ago have stayed with her and she maintains a “soft spot” for its residents.

“I was a public health nurse in that area a long time ago, and I had a very strong feeling to help people in that area,” she said.

“People in need, you know, healthily and mentally…I think it would be nice to have a center they can go to. So that’s why I decided to donate there.”

Growing up in Alert Bay, Lee moved to Vancouver to UBC at age 16, where she met her future husband, Robert Lee, who went on to become a well-known real estate developer and philanthropist.

Lily Lee said her responsibilities on the Downtown Eastside in the 1950s went beyond health care and helped find patients who needed extra benefit support.

“I really enjoyed it. It felt very safe and the people were always very friendly,” Lee said. “There are more drug problems now.”

In honor of Lee’s donation, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and the VGH and UBC Hospitals Foundation are proposing to name the centre the Lily Lee Community Health Centre Hastings.

“It’s a very humbling feeling, but it also makes me feel great,” Lee said.

The endowment funds came from early-stage investments in Vancouver’s real estate market, Lee said.

She was married to her husband, who died in 2020 after graduating from UBC. He donated $5 million to the UBC Sauder School of Business, whose Robert H. Lee Graduate School was named in his honor in 2006.

Lee’s daughter, Carol Lee, is the president of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. She said both her grandfathers had inherited a charitable tradition.

“Growing up, my parents always believed that if you had something to share with others, it was important … I think we all followed that very closely,” says Carol Lee.

She said her mother is excited to contribute to a facility that benefits Chinatown and Eastside residents.

Vivian Eliopoulos, president and CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health, said in a statement that the new centre will provide culturally appropriate and safe care.

“We thank Lily Lee for her generosity and all of our partners for their support of this healthcare initiative, which will allow us to increase access to quality care and services for our community clients,” said Eliopoulos.

The naming of the centre is subject to approval by the provincial government and Vancouver Coastal Health.

In addition to the health care centre, a 10-storey social housing project will be built at 58 West Hastings, providing 230 new units for those living on welfare.

Shen Nuonuo, Canadian Press

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