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Women of Achievement: Lee Williams

Lee Williams earned the 2022 YWCA Women of Achievement Award for education.  (Courtesy)
Lee Williams earned the 2022 YWCA Women of Achievement Award for education. (Courtesy)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

All Lee Williams ever wanted to be was a preschool teacher, but she didn’t keep the job long. Her desire to help children learn led her to a lengthy career with organizations like Child Care Aware and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Her dedication to children has earned her the 2022 YWCA Women of Achievement Award for Education.

Williams will be one of eight Women of Achievement honored at a special luncheon at 11:30 a.m. March 24 at the Davenport Grand.

She grew up in Walla Walla and was a stay-at-home mother after she got married. After her two daughters were born, she started doing research on parenting. That developed into her being involved in a parent cooperative preschool. “It was such a valuable part of my experience as a parent,” she said.

When her older daughter was 4, Williams decided to attend college to earn a degree in early childhood education. She and her family moved to Spokane in 1981, where she attended Spokane Falls Community College. A mentor encouraged her to continue her education at Eastern Washington University and she did, earning a degree in elementary education.

Her first job after graduation was as a K-3 teacher at the North Wall School. Williams said she learned one very important thing that drove her in her work with children. “We need to create environments that fit children, not make children fit the environment,” she said. “I just kept that as a value through all my experiences.”

She enjoyed being a teacher and earned her master’s degree in early childhood education while at North Wall School, but thought there was more she could do to help create an education system that would benefit children. “I kind of had this burning desire to do something bigger for the community,” she said.

She became the director of the local Child Care Resource and Referral Agency and was president of the Washington State Child Care Resource and Referral Network for three years. While she was with the network, it became Child Care Aware of Washington. From there she became a child care licenser with the state Department of Social and Health Service’s Division of Children and Family Services, where she later became regional director of licensing.

“I was drawn there because I wanted to make things safer on a basic level,” she said.

In 2004 she became the founding director of St. Anne’s Children and Family Center in Spokane, an experience she cherishes because of her work with the children. In 2014, she became the Eastern Washington Director of Early Achievers at Community-Minded Enterprises, where she went on to take the role of CEO. She retired in December.

“I felt like I had done all this work to bring things to a certain point,” she said. “I felt it was time for new leaders to step forward.”

Williams said it seemed like her career just flowed naturally from one position to the next, taking her in directions she hadn’t expected. “My passion was preschool and younger,” she said. “But as I learned about other things, I would go in different directions.”

During her career she was coached by supportive mentors and worked with good people, Williams said. “I’m a team player,” she said. “I like to gather people together and listen to their ideas.”

The past two years have been difficult, thanks largely to the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams said. But she said she worked with strong people who could continue the work she started. “I knew if I stepped aside, they would carry it forward,” she said. “It was just time.”

Williams said she was surprised to be named a YWCA Woman of Achievement. “This is quite an honor,” she said. “I’ve always looked on the Women of Achievement as a pinnacle of achievement.”

She’s also grateful that the YWCA chose to use its education award to recognize her field. “It’s especially important, I think, for me to see someone involved in early learning honored in the education category,” she said. “I’m very honored to have the profession recognized.”

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