They Will Always Be His Kids
© Copyright 2017 by Dale Fehringer
Lee saw a lot of kids go through Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center (Tel-Hi) in San Francisco, and he saw a lot of change during his nearly 20 years there, but one thing always stayed the same: "To be successful," he said, "You have to put your heart and soul into the job."
Lee put his heart and soul into helping kids at Tel-Hi, and the hundreds of children whose lives he touched were better because of it. Most of the kids that attended school or sports programs at Tel-Hi lived in public housing; many belonged to low-income, single-parent families. Their families depended on Tel-Hi to provide their kids with help with their homework, sports activities to keep them busy, or to provide breakfast and entertainment while the parent worked. Some of the kids grew up and wound up in trouble, but few of Lee’s kids went down those paths.
was a long-time youth director for Tel-Hi, hiring on in 1970 and
working there until 1989. He originally came to Tel-Hi after meeting
their Executive Director at a party and hearing a need for someone to
take the kids to summer camp. Lee took that on, never suspecting he
would work at Tel-Hi for the next two decades. His first goal was to
gain the respect of the kids.
"I told them if you respect me, I will respect you," he said.
did respect Lee, and they followed his advice.
Lee saw the need to keep the kids busy with year-round recreational activities, so he started and ran basketball programs, which most of the kids joined. Over time, he added other recreational programs; including volleyball, chess, ping pong, track, baseball, weightlifting, parade drill teams, and classes in dance, art, and photography. All were designed to give his kids positive outlets for their creativity and energy. The kids loved the activities, and they respected and loved Lee.
There was a time when the center's basketballs were "disappearing" and Lee confronted the kids.
"Those balls aren't mine," he told them. "They're yours. And when they're gone, there won't be any more."
There weren't any more missing basketballs after that, and the kids took pride in their team, their uniforms, and the gym they played in. Eventually, Lee even got them to re-finish the gym floor themselves.
had an aura that touched those around him. His courage and huge
smile were contagious, and he was a reminder that each of us can help
needy people, in large and small ways. All it takes is to put our
heart and soul into it.
The reward for his two decades at Tel-Hi was watching the kids he helped grow up, graduate from school, and become successful adults. Over the years, he stayed in touch with many of them, counseling and helping them through personal problems or just being there for them. He was a witness at several of their weddings, and some of their children were named after him.
After retiring from Tel-Hi, Lee became active in a Methodist church and developed another congregation. But he stayed in touch with his kids. Many of them called Lee, some daily, to ask his advice, or just to talk. They organized and had the gym where he spent so many years named after him, and they had a party there for him. Lee came in a wheelchair, victim of a kidney disease that ultimately took his life.
would say that he had a wonderful, full life, and his kids would
agree. But they miss their big-hearted mentor, and their lives
aren’t quite the same without him. They are adults now, and
many have their own families. But, to many of them, they will always
be his kids.
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