This Pirate is changing lives
one house at a time.
Jenny Lee is working toward a master's degree in social work
Jennifer “Jenny” Lee, a third-year graduate student at East Carolina University, did not always dream of a career in social work. At one point, she was pursuing a degree in the arts.
“I danced all my life. I loved painting and drawing so I thought that was the route I wanted to go down. I got in there and it was just not for me,” Lee said.
At her friend’s prompting, Lee enrolled in her first social work course as an undergrad at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. The professor was tough, her friend warned, but if she enjoyed the class she could be an ideal fit for the program.
“I fell in love with it because I started working with Good Shepherd Center,” said Lee.
Her passion for social work grew after co-chairing an event for Good Shepherd Center, a nonprofit Homeless shelter dedicated to transitioning individuals and families back into stable housing. The event, called Empty Bowls, provided soup donated by local restaurants to community members. Along with a meal, individuals received handcrafted bowls fashioned by clay masters.
“I was so nervous because this was my first fundraiser,” said Lee, who was interning with Good Shepherd Center at the time. “The day of the event, when I walked outside and I saw that the line had wrapped around that entire building because we had such a huge response from the community in support of this event, I stood there in awe and I just thought, ‘This is exactly where I need to be…This is what I need to do for the rest of my life.’”
Lee now works as the executive director at Rebuilding Together Pitt County, the local chapter of a national nonprofit organization that provides critical home repairs, accessibility modifications and energy efficiency upgrades for low-income homeowners in Pitt County. The opportunity to work for Rebuilding Together came after Lee enrolled into graduate school at East Carolina University.
She is the first paid staff member for the local office so the position fulfills her Master of Social Work internship requirement. As the executive director, Lee works with the board of directors, overseeing grant writing and fundraising, creating awareness and finding resources to meet homeowner needs.
“Our folks are changing lives every day and it’s a great thing to get to experience on a daily basis,” said Lee.
A National Rebuilding Day event in April assisted homeowners in Greenville, Ayden, Grimesland, Bethel, Winterville and Washington. With the help of 90 volunteers across Pitt County, the organization completed 10 homes in one day, more than triple the number of houses from last year.
Lee hopes to continue to touch lives by expanding Rebuilding Together to all of eastern North Carolina. For now, she continues to grow the organization locally by encouraging community members to seek assistance. Many individuals have grown accustomed to being denied help, according to Lee, so she often has to reassure homeowners that the service is completely free.
“We’re going to come in, we’re to provide the volunteers, we’re going to make sure it happens and we’re going to walk away and promise that you have a safer and healthier home environment by the time we leave,” said Lee. “And we’ll come back and do it again and again. That is why we’re here. That’s what it means to me. It’s about watching folks smile and that tear that comes down their eyes when they say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for coming into my home.’”
June will be Lee’s one-year anniversary of working with Rebuilding Together.
What have you learned from working with Rebuilding Together?
The biggest thing that I’ve learned is how our home environment can make such a difference on our health systems. For example, we had a client who had severe mold and mildew issues in their home that had been going on for over a year. She developed upper respiratory (issues) due to her home. We simply came in and removed the mold and put the room back together properly. Now she is doing much better as far as her respiratory system goes. She’s breathing better. She can move around the house and not be concerned that she’s going to get ill from living in her own home. It’s just amazing how homes age just like people do and without the proper upkeep or care or resources then you can lose something that is so important to you.
What would you tell someone who wanted to get involved with Rebuilding Together?
We have a lot of volunteer opportunities. Mostly, we look for volunteers to do work on the houses and they can be skilled, semi-skilled or completely non-skilled. For skilled folks, they can come on as a house captain–and that’s our project manager–so they’re going to oversee the entire project. They’ll let me know what the budget is, what repairs need to be made, and how many volunteers that they will then need, and we set that up for them. For folks who want to get involved, they have access to us through Facebook (and) our website; we have volunteer applications. We have projects going on just about every week at this point.
What do you love about social work?
What I love so much about social work is that we can come in and give folks a voice who may not have a voice. We provide a plethora of resources that they may not be aware of and we can open those doors for folks. My favorite thing about social work is the community development piece where you get a whole bunch of different people from diverse backgrounds together and you execute a mission because you’re all here for the same purpose. That’s what really stems my passion for being in social work.
Photography by: Cliff Hollis
Written by: Summer Tillman
College: Human Ecology
Major: Master of Social Work
Class: Third year graduate student
Hometown: Salisbury, North Carolina
Clubs & Organizations: Pitt County Relay for Life (Entertainment Chair)
Place on Campus: Nancy Pierson's office; really great things have come from many conversations and planning sessions with her!
Hangout: The beach and anywhere there is live music
Place to Eat: Down on Main Washington, North Carolina
Class: Advanced Practice: Community Partnerships
TV Show: "Mad Men"
Musician/band: Fleetwood Mac
Movie: "Gone with the Wind"
Most Influential Professor: Deborah Bowen (UNC Wilmington)
Dream Job: To be a community organizer through benefit concerts, much like George Harrison.
You Can’t Live Without: My daughter, Hazel
Role Model: My parents, Steve and Sheila Lee
Words to Live By: Walk by faith and not by sight.
Advice for Fellow Students: Always attend class and get to know your professors and classmates well.
Something cool about ECU you wish you knew during your first year: Their partnership and implementation of the Lucille W. Gorham Intergenerational Community Center (IGCC); this program is a true staple in our community.
“Always attend class and get to know your professors and classmates well."
– Jenny Lee