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The Daily Guide - Waynesville, MO
  • Life after loss: Lee family giving back to community, single mothers

  • Just nine months after he lost his grandson and daughter, Michael Lee, along with his family, is giving back to the community that offered support and comfort when he and his family needed it the most.
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  • Just nine months after he lost his grandson and daughter, Michael Lee, along with his family, is giving back to the community that offered support and comfort when he and his family needed it the most.
    Jessica Lee, 23, and her son Elyjah Lee, 4, were tragically swept away in the Aug. 6, 2013, flood.
    Jessica's father, Michael Lee, wants to ensure the memory of his inspirational, hard-working daughter and his confident and compassionate grandson who was always asking “are you OK?” isn't forgotten.
    A single mom's story
    Jessica Lee was 19 years old when she became pregnant with her son Elyjah and had just finished her first year at Columbia College. Jessica had a passion for children and was thinking about being a pediatric nurse when she got pregnant.
    “She ended up being a single mom and instead of giving up on college, she readjusted her career goals and she fought her way through her degree,” Michael said. “We are very proud of her for that.”
    She continued to pursue her education at Columbia College in Fort Leonard Wood and took night classes. She worked in a child care center on post and took care of her son during the day.
    Jessica graduated with a degree in child psychology in just four years and got a job on Fort Leonard Wood.
    “She was very independent,” Michael said. “She was really wanting to stand on her own two feet. She moved out about six months prior to the accident. We were very proud of her for that because she didn't give up.”
    Michael said that Jessica was constantly around Elyjah when she wasn't working.
    “She spent a lot of time at the Waynesville Park and the St. Robert pool with her son,” Michael said. “She was always at her best with Elyjah. She was constantly with him all the time, making sure they were playing and growing together.”
    Jessica was on her way to work with Elyjah when her car was swept away in flash flooding in Waynesville.
    “Growing up in a military family, Jessica knew that regardless what the weather was like, the drill sergeants still had to train their soldiers and you still had to go to work,” Michael said. “She knew if everyone at the child care center didn't come to work, there would be no one to watch the soldiers' kids and the whole system fails. So she went to work at 4:30 a.m. that morning.”
    Michael was in Korea at the time for military duties and said he felt “ambushed” when he heard the news about his only grandson and his oldest daughter. Michael and his wife Michelle have three children: Justin, Jessica and Julia.
    Page 2 of 3 - Seeking support
    “You just don't expect things like this to happen,” Michael said. “Some losses you prepare for. Jessica's brother is in the Missouri National Guard and has been in Afghanistan. My parents are still alive but have cancer.
    “You prepare yourself for some things that are going to happen. But you don't see that coming — losing your 23-year-old daughter and your 4-year-old grandson. You get ambushed.”
    But in the midst of the catastrophe, the Lee family saw the community come together to show their support.
    “Literally thousands of people — from the little older lady who made coffee for the rescue searchers to the Fort Leonard Wood soldier who volunteered after work everyday to help look for my daughter — literally thousands of people helped us,” Michael said. “Even the people whose houses were underwater, they stopped what they were doing and helped us look for my daughter. You have to appreciate that kind of our community.”
    Giving Back
    As a way to give back to the community for their help, the Lee family is sponsoring the first annual Jessica and Elyjah Lee Remembrance Community Fundraiser Saturday, May 17.
    The money raised will be used to establish the Jessica D. Lee Scholarship Fund at Columbia College. The scholarship will go toward single mothers at Columbia College - Fort Leonard Wood.
    “We thought this scholarship would be a way of giving back,” Michael said. “Single moms are at a disadvantage as far as income and trying to make a living and take care of their kids and do what they have to do. We wanted to give back and help them.”
    The money raised will also provide funding to the Pulaski County Emergency Management Fund for additional equipment, training or other community needs.
    “We donated to emergency management also because they were a blessing and completely instrumental in the recovery effort [during the flood],” Michael said. “It was a crisis situation for many families and it required a lot of agencies and volunteers to come together to make everything happen.”
    Michael said he greatly appreciated all the local agencies who worked in the recovery effort during that tragic week in August, and he wants this fundraiser to be a way for his family to show their gratitude.
    Instead of pointing the finger and placing the blame for his daughter and grandson's death, Michael wants to display gratitude, and raise money to help improve the community he calls home. The Lees have lived in the Fort Leonard Wood area for more than a decade.
    Page 3 of 3 - “Being in small town America, some of the stuff that is needed [with emergency services] just isn't in the budget,” Michael said. “It would be nice to give to the people who suffered losses [in the flood]. I'm sure there is equipment that is needed and work needed to be done. And none of these things are free.
    “We want this fundraiser to make enough changes to pay for things that are needed. That's the intent: to make this a better place.”
    And above all else, Michael wants this fundraiser to remind the people in the community to think of his daughter and grandson and remember to cherish their loved ones.
    “I just want people to never forget how fragile life is and to never take anything for granted,” Michael said. “I have 21 years of service in my military career, but I would have walked away in a heartbeat after 19 years if someone told me that would be my last year with my grandson and daughter. Life is precious.”
    The Jessica and Elyjah Lee Remembrance Community Fundraiser will be held on Saturday, May 17, at Johnny G's, 356 Highway Z, Suite 5 and 6 in St. Robert. The fundraiser will begin with a poker run at 2 p.m. The poker run will begin and end at Johnny G's. From 6:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., participants can enjoy live music, a DJ, food and drink, and an auction at Johnny G's.
    The Lee family plans on having the event every year.
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