On Friday, Lee was awarded the Altruist of the Year award by Modern Luxury’s Angeleno magazine for her ongoing charity work. The honor, which came one night after raising $150,000 dollars for St. Elizabeth Seton Children’s Foundation at their annual Bella Notte event in New York, recognizes all of Lee’s efforts with UNICEF, Stand Up To Cancer, No Kid Hungry, Meals on Wheels and the Elton John AIDS Foundation — all organizations she is extremely passionate about as a result of her personal life.
Lee, who is this month’s cover star for their annual philanthropy issue, tells Angeleno: “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. 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.”
The oldest of five children, Lee was born to a teen mom who was unable to care for them due to substance abuse and other issues. To provide for her siblings, Lee says she took any job she could find, like cleaning houses, and used welfare and food stamps for food and clothing.
“If it were not for the charity of others, I never could have provided for my siblings,” she says.
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Lee tells PEOPLE she often celebrated the holidays with very few resources, but always made the best of it.
“The first Thanksgiving when I moved into [my uncle Bill’s house], I didn’t have any money so Aunt Peggy, Uncle Bill and I were in the kitchen, I bought fancy paper plates, I put them all over the kitchen table and we made all different kinds of candy and I wrapped them up with cookies in cellophane and I went and delivered them to all my friends,” Lee says. “I didn’t even know what a candy thermometer was, my uncle Bill taught me what it was.”
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Now the breast cancer survivor and philanthropist says charity work and giving back is one of her greatest passions.
“So many people do so much good work and they do it all the time and they do it everyday,” Lee says. “I do it when I can, but I split my life very specifically — a third of my life is spent doing business, a third of my life is spent on family and my friends, and a third of my life is spent on my philanthropy, which is my passion. Now if you’re a working mom, you might be able to do only one-tenth of your time but something is better than nothing because it’s more than other people had before and it takes all of us.”