Story last updated at 11/19/2008 - 4:22 pm
JUNEAU - Lee Sandor worked in Juneau for a summer when she was 25 years old and ended up making a life for herself in the Alaska panhandle. And the capital city will forever be a better place because of it.
More than 57 years after she first set foot in Juneau, Sandor was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce annual banquet on Nov. 1. Sandor was overwhelmed by all the attention, but day by day, year after year, she has made her mark on Juneau.
"It was just a day by day process," Sandor said. "You just worked on the problem or the need as it became apparent."
The biggest need Sandor helped serve was for developmentally disabled adults, including her own daughter, May. Sandor was among the five parents of adult children with developmental disabilities who started REACH 30 years ago, when there was nothing for their children to do after they finished high school.
REACH has blossomed from the program's beginnings in the basement of the Douglas Methodist Church to currently serving 400 people today, offering housing, employment, activities and community engagement.
"After Mary graduated from high school, we tried Goodwill in Tacoma and after a while that didn't work out either," Sandor said. "We tried having her live with an aunt down there and the aunt took sick so that didn't work and eventually she came back here. And for quite some time there was really nothing for her to do here. I said, 'Well, we can use the basement of the church for a facility for them to do things during the daytime.'"
And REACH was born, originally to serve five people and growing to serve hundreds and employ around 200 more.
"We are so fortunate this program has grown so big," Sandor said. "Looking back on it, just to meet the needs of five or six families originally and how this has grown is unbelievable. (Even) in large cities, I don't think they have anything equivalent to this."
Sandor first moved to Juneau while Alaska was still a territory, in the spring of 1951. She and a high school friend had heard about opportunities for secretaries in Juneau and decided to give it a try. Eventually, her friend went back home to Ohio, and Sandor stayed until November. After spending the winter back home, she decided to return to Juneau on her own - and stay.
"I had to make up my mind whether I was brave enough to come back all by myself," Sandor said.
And she was.
"My mother, bless her heart, was so blasé about it," Sandor said. "She said, 'If that's your decision, that's what you've decided."
Her first job upon returning was working for an organization that marketed Alaska Native arts and crafts to local dealers. She loved the job and kept it until she was married.
She met John Sandor in 1954 and they were married in 1956. They had two daughters, Mary and Janet. Since John was in the Forest Service, the family moved around the country, living in Ketchikan, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Milwaukee before returning to Juneau in 1976. Finally settled in the town they love, the Sandors have lived in their West Juneau home for the past 30 years.
Sandor is a master gardener with the Juneau Garden Club, and helped organize and contributed to the latest edition of "Gardening in Southeast Alaska" and has quite an "established garden." She is a member of the American Society of Primroses, one of her favorite flowers, and has participated in their annual sales.
She has remained active in the Douglas Island Methodist Church, where she has served as president of her woman's group and sang in choir.
She is a member of Philanthropic Educational Organization, a national sisterhood dedicated to promoting education opportunities for women through scholarships, grants and loans.
"I'm very interested in education and seeing that people have the opportunity to (pursue) it," Sandor said.
Her family hosted exchange students from Sweden, Bolivia and Brazil through Rotary. She and John have traveled to Indonesia, China, Japan and throughout Europe.
"I look at pictures sometimes and I think, boy, did I get around!" Sandor said.
These days, Sandor doesn't move around as easily, but she still cooks, bakes, entertains and enjoys life in Juneau.
"There was something about (Juneau) that just drew me," she said. "I loved it from the minute we stepped off the boat. I think the community really works at providing civic and cultural activities and that's tremendous."