A ‘superhero’ in West Hempstead

Lauren Lee is the Herald's 2018 Person of the Year

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West Hempstead resident Lauren Lee has been an attorney for 31 years, but no matter how busy her schedule may be, finding time to be a part of her children’s lives has always been one of her top priorities. From academics to athletics, Lee’s passion for the youth in her community made her the Herald’s easy choice for 2018 Person of the Year.

“Balancing is never easy,” she acknowledged. “But it’s one of those things where you have to find ways to carve out time. You just have to make time.”

Lee, 56, who grew up in Franklin Square, has lived in West Hempstead for 26 years and belonged to the school district’s PTA, the Parent Teacher Student Association and the Special Education PTA for 21 years. She and her husband, Terence, who have four children — Jennifer, Sean, Thomas and Jessica — decided long ago that it was important to get involved with school groups to have a better understanding of their children’s education.

“I just wanted to be a part of the kids’ school community while keeping an eye on the education they’re receiving, and just being involved in their school,” said Lee, who was president of SEPTA from 2002 to 2012.

Her children played in the West Hempstead Chiefs soccer program, which led Lee to help launch a local chapter of the TOPSoccer program, which partnered with the club in 2011. TOPSoccer, or The Outreach Program for Soccer, is a community-based training program for young athletes with disabilities. Lee and Brendan Smith, then the president of the Chiefs, decided that local disabled kids needed a place to play soccer, too.

“I wanted to start a program where kids of any kind of disability can be a part of a team to enjoy soccer, to have their parents enjoy being soccer moms and dads just like everybody else,” Lee said. “I wanted the programs to be as inclusive as possible.”

Part of her inspiration, she explained, was wanting children to take part in fundraisers throughout the year. Each spring, the Chiefs hold an Autism Awareness Day fundraiser, and they raise money each October as well, in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Getting disabled children involved in charitable activities, Lee said, helps them feel like they are no different from their teammates.

“So many of our kids have autism, so it’s so nice to be able to the spread the word, especially for the volunteers,” she said. “They get to see how these kids are living with this every day, [and how] their families are coping with it.”

When Lee and Smith started TOPSoccer in West Hempstead, she said, she was unsure how receptive the community would be. Since then, however, the program has expanded to other communities such as Franklin Square, Hicksville and New Hyde Park.

“When she takes on a project,” said Loraine Magaraci, a member of the Chiefs’ executive board, “it surpasses any expectations that we have.”

Although her children are no longer in the school district — three of them graduated, and Jessica attends school elsewhere — Lee said she still attends SEPTA meetings to continue spreading the word about TOPSoccer, because many parents of children with special needs are searching for activities for them.

Regardless of how long her workday is, she said, staying active is a good thing. “Sometimes the busier you are, the more efficient you are,” she said. “There’s a lot of meetings and things that I have to take part in during the week, but to me it’s all worth it, and it’s very rewarding when I see the kids’ faces light up when they’re putting on a new jersey, or holding their trophy, or just kicking the ball.”

Magaraci has known Lee for over a decade, since they were on the PTSA together. She said that her friend’s work ethic is unmatched. “I believe she is truly a superhero,” Magaraci said. “I’m sure she’s wearing a cape underneath that business suit. She’s absolutely someone I admire.”

Lee’s leadership, Magaraci added, also sets her apart. She chaired many of the events hosted by the PTA and PTSA, and invited Paralympian wrestler and motivational speaker Rohan Murphy to speak to students at the high school in 2012.

“To this day, I wonder how she does all of these things,” said West Hempstead SEPTA President Theresa Walz, who succeeded Lee. “Sometimes she’d be done with work and come straight to PTA meetings, so she wouldn’t even go home.”

Lee believes that anything parents do with their children has the potential to bolster their family, she said. She added that being able to lead by example, through volunteerism, shows children that being a part of the community is a good thing. “Many of our volunteers are students that started out as little Chiefs with the intramural program,” she said. “To see them grow up and care about the community as much as myself and our board members, it really shows that the kids love soccer, and that they want to share it and they also want to do something to help the community.”

When the Chiefs were preparing to kick off their 40th season in February, Thomas Cardillo — a volunteer who played for West Hempstead High School’s varsity soccer team last year — said that watching the children grow through the program is an amazing experience. Seeing them make lifelong friends along the way adds to the meaning of this program, Cardillo noted.

His mother, Susan, a club board member who has known Lee for a decade, added that her passion and dedication are what make her special. “For as long as I’ve known Lauren, she has been nothing but a kind, compassionate and caring person,” Susan said. “Lauren puts her whole heart into everything she does.”

Lee said she hoped to reach more neighboring communities through TOPSoccer, and to continue to recruit volunteers to youth-oriented programs.

“She is a true staple of our West Hempstead community,” Magaraci said. “Everyone — from the volunteers to the board members and the players — love being around her, and I feel that’s a result of her contagious and infectious personality.”