CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
Sally Lee has won two major awards this year: Hawaii Mother of the Year and the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Angel in Adoption Award. Lee posed in her office Thursday with photos of children for whom she has helped find homes.
A mother’s love
Sally Okubo Lee's belief in the strength of God drives her work to help children, teens and unwed parents become selfless, loving individuals
Sally Okura Lee has opened her Manoa home to at least 48 children, teenagers and unwed mothers over 25 years.
The super-volunteer had six children of her own and worked as a full-time social worker and at her church.
"A genuine mother's love extends beyond her own children" are the words from an unknown author that Lee lives by.
Lee, whose profession includes finding adopting parents for children who don't have any, said she has been "a mother to many who don't have one" in her personal life, too.
Lee was nominated by U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye for the 2006 Angel in Adoption Award for working to place hundreds of children in permanent homes. She will accept it at a ceremony Sept. 20 in Washington, D.C. The award is the highest accolade given by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.
Lee's work and personal commitment led to her selection as the 2006 Hawaii State Mother of the Year, a title given in April by American Mothers Inc.
The driving, strengthening force behind the Hilo-born Lee has been her faith in the love of God. "I really believe in prayer. We cannot do everything as mortal men, but the powers of heaven are great," she said.
A leader, counselor, teacher, keynote speaker and music director in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lee was director for LDS Family Services in Hawaii from 1994 through 2002. Still with the church agency, she now focuses on work with birth parents and adoptive couples, and gives adoption counseling for unwed parents.
She believes her greatest accomplishment has been raising her children -- with her husband, real estate broker Abe Lee -- "to become selfless, loving human beings who love God and others. The most important thing is to teach children about love," along with "good values and correct principles."
"I don't know why I'm mother of the year. ... (I'm) not a perfect person. There are hundreds and thousands of wonderful mothers everywhere. I'm just a representative of all the mothers in the world," she said.
Even though she had her master's degree, Lee worked at night as a waitress and saleswoman from 1974 to 1981 so she could stay at home with her children during the day. Throughout 33 years of marriage, her family has had daily prayer together. They observe the LDS practice of a Family Home Evening every week at which they sing, pray and have a council meeting and spiritual lesson together, she said. Her children all attended 6 a.m. Bible study on school days from ninth through 12th grade.
Lee is proud that her husband and children, ages 26 to 32, have opened their hearts to the dozens of people who have lived with them at no charge for periods of a few weeks to a few years.
"My children have learned about love this way; they've loved without thought of 'this is mine and this is yours.' They share everything," she said.
Her eldest daughter, Sarah Chow, a lawyer in New York City, wrote for the Mother of the Year nomination: "She has taken in numerous friends and foster children (and adults), providing them not only with food and shelter but often a place to heal and feel love. She is the most selfless person I know, a woman of faith who stands up for what she believes is right.
"When my grandmothers were bedridden and unable to care for themselves, my mother rearranged our home and took them in. Even when she underwent a mastectomy and chemotherapy for advanced breast cancer, she smiled and carried on with courage. She taught us to stick together during hard times and express gratitude always," Chow wrote.
Lee said she has been a counselor for victims of abuse, rape, incest, depression and "the most horrendous, toughest problems" human beings suffer, including the heart-wrenching pain of a mother giving her child up for adoption.
"My heart has truly grieved for them. ... I mainly listen to them and I feel their pain. I give them courage and hope. I don't center their attention on their problems, but on solutions. I recommend they make God the center of their lives. A higher power can lift people and their souls from any kind of misery."
"God's love builds their self-esteem and confidence to go forward. There is so much ahead for them in the future. I remind them of their full self-worth as children of God," she said.
She continues to hear from people she has helped. One woman who lived with Lee's family for two years asked Lee to attend when she received her nursing degree and was chosen valedictorian.
"She asked me to pin her, to be her mom because she didn't have a mom," Lee said. "I love her so much."