Lily Lee’s first contribution to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Chinatown communities was as a 21-year-old community nurse in the 1950s, just after graduating from the University of British Columbia.
Lee lives in Strathcona, where he administers vaccinations, works as a school nurse and works as a liaison between health and welfare, occasionally encountering “drinking weirdos”.
Li, 88, is now making a different kind of contribution — personally donating $3.8 million to the community health department, which will serve Chinatown and the Midtown East community.
The wellness center under construction at 58 West Hastings Street will be a 50,000-square-foot complex scheduled to open in spring 2024.
Vancouver Coastal Health, which will operate the facility, said in a statement that it will provide a wide range of services, including those in need of specialized mental health and addiction issues, home health and senior care.
Ms. Lee, who donated through the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation last week, said her early experiences in the neighborhood more than 65 years ago have stuck with her, and she maintains a “soft spot” for its residents.
“A long time ago, I was a public health nurse in that area, and I had a very strong feeling to help people in that area,” she said.
“People who need some help, you know, physically 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.”
Lee grew up in Alert Bay and moved to Vancouver at age 16 to study at UBC, where she met her future husband, Robert Lee, who went on to become a noted real estate developer and philanthropist.
Lily Lee said her responsibilities on the Midtown East Side in the 1950s went beyond health care and helped find patients who needed extra benefit support.
“I really enjoy it. It feels very safe and the people are 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 donation came from early 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 the tradition of philanthropy was passed down from her two grandfathers.
“Growing up, my parents always believed that if you have something that you should share with others, that’s important … I think we all very much live by that,” said Carol Lee.
She said her mother was excited to contribute to a facility that would benefit residents of Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.
In a statement, Vivian Eliopoulos, president and CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health, said the new center 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 better provide quality care and service to our clients in our community,” Eliopoulos said.
The naming of the center is subject to approval by the provincial government and the Vancouver Coastal Health Board.
In addition to the health care centre, a 10-storey social housing project will be built at 58 West Hastings, with 230 new units for those living on welfare.
This story was produced with funding from Meta and the Canadian Journalism Fellowship.
Nuonuo Shen, Canadian Press
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