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Sweet Charity

By Stephanie Davis Smith

Portraits by Jason Rothenberg


Sandra Lee has a fierce sense of social responsibility born from tough beginnings and an L.A.-based grandmother who expanded her worldview. From breast cancer to child hunger to AIDS organizations, the statuesque blonde is driven to help causes closest to her heart. Here, she tells us in her own words how her philanthropic passion came about.

Tell us why it is important for you to give back?
Any chance to use my personal resources and experiences to create opportunities for those who need it the most feels like a great gift to me. I’m not a Pollyanna—far from it; hardship and struggle are not foreign concepts to me. They are foundational aspects of my life—but so is the overwhelming satisfaction, joy and goodness that comes out of giving back. I appreciate the improvements made possible in peoples’ lives because of all of our collective works. Personally, it is how I am most fulfilled.

You are a survivor in more ways than one. What are the life experiences that led you to becoming so committed to charitable causes and advocacy?
I know firsthand what a life-changing difference charitable organizations can make, especially to a child, because I was one of those children. Some would say I was born into underprivileged circumstances. In fact, most people would call it a ‘terrible childhood.’ I think of it as a gift. It made me who I am today, and that is a woman who is committed to working hard, having a clear perspective, putting my family first and giving back. I was the oldest of five children born to a teen mother who was unable to care for us. There was substance abuse and other issues. I have had a huge hand in raising my siblings and took on that task when I was very young. They were, and remain, the loves of my life. Nothing meant more to me than seeing those four little people feel loved and cared for in a way that we never felt from our parents. I took any odd job in the neighborhood: I cleaned houses and used welfare and food stamps to feed my two brothers and two sisters, making sure they had food, clothes and the basics they needed, and focused on ensuring they knew they were as good as anybody else. If it were not for the charity of others, I never could have provided for my siblings.    

When did you first realize that charitable work was something you had to commit yourself to and that you could make a difference?
My angel of a grandmother, Lorraine—whom I lived with for several years as a toddler on Grant Street in Santa Monica—took my sister and me on a monthlong pilgrimage to the Holy Land when I was 18. It was a trip organized by her church. We saw historically magnificent parts of the world, but we also saw children, families and the elderly in severe poverty. They were in situations far worse than any I had experienced. It opened my eyes to a need and a desperation that stayed with me. I felt ashamed for ever feeling sorry for myself, and I committed myself to help.

UNICEF; Stand Up To Cancer; No Kid Hungry; Elton John AIDS Foundation; Meals on Wheels—these are only a few of the organizations with which you are involved. What are the causes that are most important to you?
All of them are dear to me. UNICEF is special because I know how important it is to support and insulate children. I understand how fragile they can be and how that desperation can either make or break you. That is why I am one of three founding members for the L.A. chapter of UNICEF. I was named nutrition emissary for UNICEF last year and have been on several mission trips. Most recently, I traveled to Haiti to feed and vaccinate babies who weighed less than 10 pounds at 3 years old. I helped educate their mothers about nutrition, how to cook with local resources and how to care for themselves so their children can nurse. I spoke of my earlier life and being food insecure as a young girl, so No Kid Hungry and the food banks... there aren’t enough hours in the day to keep those places equipped with supplies and support. I also worked with the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and Stand Up To Cancer after I was diagnosed with breast cancer following a routine annual mammogram. I became an impassioned advocate for women to get tested and worked to make mammograms available to all women. They both do tremendous work funding and advocating groundbreaking scientific research all over the world. With the Elton John AIDS Foundation, we are increasing access to HIV prevention and treatment, and advocating for just and compassionate laws and policies regarding the people affected by the AIDS epidemic. I got to know Elton and David [Furnish], along with Scott [Campbell], who runs the foundation here in the United States, and I was simply in awe of the efforts they’ve made. At a time when the masses were filled with fear and misconceptions, Elton and David took on one of the most significant challenges in modern history, making it their life’s mission to end the AIDS epidemic. It’s an honor to work with them in any capacity. Finally, I worked very closely with Project Angel Food in L.A. for a number of years. In fact, proceeds from my second cookbook, Semi-Homemade Desserts, were donated to the nonprofit. When I relocated to New York, I was so excited to find out God’s Love We Deliver was their sister affiliate and immediately went to work with them.

You’ve been recognized for your tireless commitment with some prestigious honors, including The Albert Einstein Award of Excellence and The President’s Volunteer Service Award. Is there one you are most proud of?
I’m honored by every acknowledgement, but recently I was awarded the Eleanor Roosevelt Medal Award. The honor recognizes individuals for their contributions to society, citizenship, philanthropy, community services and other humanitarian concerns reflective of Mrs. Roosevelt’s ideals. I’ve always admired and respected her legacy. I even have an original handwritten letter she wrote framed in the entrance of my home. What I love most about what she stood for was her undying desire for openness and honesty. The motto I live by is, ‘Turn your pain into your purpose, your mess into your message and your tests into your testimony.’

You are an ambassador for BBVA Compass. The company seems very committed to social causes as well. Was that a deciding factor for you when you chose to align with the brand?
Without question—BBVA Compass is part of one of the largest, most successful financial institutions in the world, and they focus magnanimous efforts to create opportunities for each place and person they reach. Even when Hurricane Harvey hit their holding company’s headquarters in Houston, they were providing round-the-clock care and relief in every way possible for their surrounding communities. Those efforts continued when the BBVA family was hit again with Hurricane Irma and Maria in both Florida and Puerto Rico, where BBVA has significant employee numbers. On top of that, they are strong supporters of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, and work with LINC Housing—an organization with a 31-year history of creating communities for thousands of families and seniors throughout California. In May, they sponsored the Television Industry Advocacy Awards (TIAA) the night before the Emmys. The purpose is to recognize industry leaders who demonstrate an active commitment to supporting particular causes and/or philanthropic pursuits.

When you’re walking the red carpet at these events and award shows, does it ever remind you how far you’ve come?
When I was 5 years old, my grandma took my sister and me to The Salvation Army Family Stores in Santa Monica and told me where the clothes came from. I was touched people cared about shoppers like us. We were each allowed to select a princess dress for play, and I even found a long pair of white opera gloves! I wore a floor-length pink and white gown with those gloves in our front yard and felt as beautiful and special as I do now on the red carpet at the Emmys.