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Ex-nurse donates $3.8M for health unit in Downtown Eastside where she worked in 1950s

Lily Lee made her donation through the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation
Lily Lee administered inoculations, acted as a school nurse and served as a liaison between health and welfare. (The Canadian Press)

Lily Lee’s first contribution to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and Chinatown neighbourhoods was as a 21-year-old community nurse in the 1950s when she was fresh out of the University of British Columbia.

Based in Strathcona, Lee administered inoculations, acted as a school nurse and served as a liaison between health and welfare, occasionally encountering “the odd person who has had too much to drink.”

Lee, 88, is now making a different kind of contribution — a personal donation of $3.8 million toward a community health unit that will serve both the Chinatown and Downtown Eastside communities.

The health centre under construction at 58 West Hastings St. will become a 50,000-square-foot integrated facility and is scheduled to open in the spring of 2024.

Vancouver Coastal Health, which will run the facility, said in a statement it would provide easy access to a broad spectrum of services, including for those in need of specialized mental health and addiction issues, home health and seniors care.

Lee, who made her donation through the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation last week, said her early experiences in the neighbourhood more than 65 years ago had stayed with her and she maintained “a soft spot” for its residents.

“I was a public health nurse in that area a long time ago, and I have a really strong feeling to help the people in that area,” she said.

“The people that need some help, you know, health wise and mentally … I thought it would be nice to have a centre that they could go to. So that’s why I decided to donate there.”

Lee grew up in Alert Bay and moved to Vancouver at age 16 to go to UBC, where she met her future husband, Robert Lee, who went on to become a prominent real estate developer and philanthropist.

Lily Lee said her duties in the Downtown Eastside in the 1950s extended beyond health care to helping locate patients who needed extra welfare support.

“I really enjoyed it. It felt very safe and people were always very friendly,” said Lee. “There are a lot more drug problems now.”

In honour of Lee’s donation, the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation and the VGH and UBC Hospital Foundation have proposed that the centre be named the Lily Lee Community Health Centre Hastings.

“It’s a very humbling feeling, but it also makes me feel great,” Lee said.

Lee said the donation funds came from early investment in Vancouver’s real estate market.

She married her husband, who died in 2020, after they graduated from UBC. He donated $5 million to UBC Sauder School of Business, where the Robert H. Lee Graduate School was named in his honour in 2006.

Lee’s daughter, Carol Lee, is chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation. She said a tradition of philanthropy had been handed down from both of her grandfathers.

“Growing up, my mother and father always had the philosophy (that) it’s important if you have something that you should share with others .… I think that we all very much follow that principle,” said Carol Lee.

She said her mother was excited to contribute toward a facility to benefit residents of both Chinatown and the Downtown Eastside.

Vivian Eliopoulos, president and CEO of Vancouver Coastal Health, said in a statement the new centre would provide culturally appropriate and safe care.

“We are grateful for the generosity of Lily Lee and for the support from all of our partners on this health-care initiative that will allow us to enhance access to quality care and services for the clients in the community,” said Eliopoulos.

The naming of the centre is subject to approval by the provincial government and the board of Vancouver Coastal Health.

In addition to the health-care centre, a 10-storey social housing project will also be built at 58 West Hastings to provide 230 new units to people living on welfare.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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