Mid-Columbia Graduations

Delta High grad uses his own struggle to help others

Edward Lee, 18, graduates from Delta High School on June 11. The senior helped organize a fundraiser at the school this past spring to help teen shelter My Friend’s Place, where Edward stayed briefly after leaving his family’s home.
Edward Lee, 18, graduates from Delta High School on June 11. The senior helped organize a fundraiser at the school this past spring to help teen shelter My Friend’s Place, where Edward stayed briefly after leaving his family’s home. Tri-City Herald

During a student club discussion earlier this school year, senior Edward Lee decided he needed to speak up.

Delta High School’s Ambassadors Club was debating which organizations to help with a fundraiser. One student suggested My Friend’s Place, a shelter for homeless teens in Kennewick.

That’s when Edward, 18, told his fellow students that he had lived for a time at the shelter and it needed support, such as more beds to accommodate youth. The shelter’s washer and dryer at the time were on their last legs as well.

“A lot of them couldn’t believe (I’d been homeless),” Edward said.

Edward’s revelation led the school to raise nearly $850 to benefit My Friend’s Place. That motivated him to amplify the effort — sponsorships he helped secure upped the school’s contribution to the shelter to more than $3,200.

Those who know him credited him for using his struggles to fuel his drive to help others.

“He is inspiring and he will go far,” said Mark Lee, a board member of My Friend’s Place.

Edward graduates June 11 from Delta High.

Looking for a new home

Edward, who went by a different first and last name before legally changing it several weeks ago, said he had a troubled home life growing up in Pasco and a particularly strained relationship with his father.

When he was young he spent as much time as he could away from home, reading for hours at the downtown Pasco library. When he was 16 he ran away from home, but was forced to return.

It was after he turned 18 last September that Edward said he left his family’s home out of concern for his safety. But he had nowhere to go and ended up at My Friend’s Place.

While scared of the uncertainty facing him, Edward said the staff at the shelter welcomed him and helped him find resources. Still, he kept his status a secret from friends and others at school.

But he still needed a more permanent living solution. Then his boss at Tri-County Partners Habitat for Humanity, where Edward works as a graphic designer, put him in touch with the family of Delta High senior Brandon Lee, 18.

“One day he came up to me and asked ‘do you need a place?’ ” Edward recalled.

Within about a week — just before Halloween — he had moved in with the Lee family, who are not related to Mark Lee.

Brandon and his mother, Sandra Lee, said the arrangement has worked out well, with Brandon and Edward becoming brothers of sorts. Edward took the family’s last name when he changed his name to honor them.

“He’s been a blessing to us, I think,” Sandra Lee said.

Ramping up support

Edward never forgot how important My Friend’s Place had been to him, and that was why he finally spoke up about his time there in the Ambassador’s Club discussion, he said.

And while he knew the school would do what it could to help, the planned change drive — featuring donation jars at area businesses — would only have a minimal effect on the shelter’s needs.

“A change drive is only going to provide that, change,” he said.

Another co-worker at Habitat for Humanity put him in contact with Mark Lee, a board member for My Friend’s Place. Together, the two began approaching businesses and others in the community to match Delta High’s fundraising efforts.

Mark Lee said he didn’t know that Edward had been living at the shelter until only weeks before they met.

“He really has a presence that doesn’t say ‘struggling,’ ” Mark Lee said.

When all was said and done, they secured four major donors — Numerica Credit Union, McCurley Integrity Dealerships, Richland businessman Adam Brault and an anonymous contributor, Edward said. Combined, they provided more than $2,300 toward Delta High’s change drive.

Mark Lee said any money the teen shelter receives is sorely needed. About $150,000 a year is needed to keep the doors open and to provide services to youth, but the county government only provides enough money to cover about half the costs.

Those who know Edward said his dedication to the Delta High fundraiser and to My Friend’s Place was a clear extension of his personality and sense of community.

“I think he’s just highly motivated,” Sandra Lee said. “He wants to do the right thing.”

But the fundraiser was about more than money. The Lee family and Mark Lee said Edward himself represented how homelessness could affect anyone, even those who don’t appear homeless. That drives home the importance to help organizations aimed at helping those without their own home.

“The reality is so many people really are so close to the edge,” Mark Lee said.

Pursuing his dreams

Edward is looking forward to his life after high school. He’s planning to attend Western Washington University in the fall to take part in an interdisciplinary studies program where he’ll learn about sustainable agriculture and alternative medicine. He was inspired to enroll in the program because of its similarities to the hands-on approach used at Delta High, he said.

He’s also starting a nonprofit organization aimed at helping other groups access resources, and he’s helped with a collection drive that provided 100 pairs of shoes to students at Richland’s Lewis & Clark Elementary School.

“He’s pursuing his dreams and that’s what’s amazing about him,” Brandon said.