From tenants rights to civil rights to families in crisis, Lee has taken a lead in helping the marginalized

Being in the right place at the right time to make a difference has happened more than once for Mary Pat Lee. A Highland Park resident and executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, Lee said she has been fortunate to be able to devote her career to organizations dedicated to the values that inspire her.

Lee, 64, recently marked her 14th anniversary at the Crisis Nursery, and she said she is motivated more than ever to help Twin Cities families manage the stress of daily living, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Married to former St. Paul Mayor James Scheibel, she said, “Jim and I share similar convictions in the areas of social justice. We really believe in the need to stay engaged if you want to make change.” Though the Twin Cities have made improvements over the years for the poor and marginalized, she added, “there’s a lot left to do.”

Greater Minneapolis Crisis Nursery executive director Mary Pat Lee is pictured in the office of the nonprofit agency with Americorps staff member Rebekah Reason. Photo by Brad Stauffer

The Crisis Nursery serves families in Minneapolis and St. Paul who are suffering hardships related to financial stress and domestic abuse among other situations. In addition to counseling, education and meals, the Nursery provides short-term overnight stays for the children of parents seeking respite child care.

   

The Crisis Nursery is now pursuing new programs in the area of childhood development, and Lee is excited to be a part of those efforts. These include a partnership with the University of Minnesota and Harvard University to study how trauma affects childhood development. The results will be used to help children and families served by the Crisis Nursery, she said.

Lee’s concern for families in strife comes in part from knowing how fortunate she was growing up. “My childhood was a pretty classic St. Paul, white, Catholic middle-class childhood,” she said, “so different from so many childhoods today. I’m the oldest of eight children. When I was young, a small family had one to four children, a medium five to nine and a large family was in the double digits.”

Lee and her siblings attended the former St. Mark’s Grade School in Merriam Park. Most mothers at the time worked at home. “We always said that if your mom didn’t catch you doing something, another mom would,” she said. She then attended all-girl Derham Hall High School where, she said, there were many strong role models for young women interested in future careers. The same was true at the College of St. Catherine where, she said, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had a great impact on her dedication to social justice.

 

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“Part of what has happened during my tenure at Crisis Nursery is getting a better understanding of what trauma does to children socially and emotionally and how we can help with that. Trauma can impede the development of neurons and the size and function of the brain if left unattended. We’re working to change that.”

Lee’s initial plan was to major in political science and then go to law school. However, she changed her major to English with a minor in political science because it allowed her to focus her studies at St. Catherine rather than taking most of her classes at the neighboring College of St. Thomas.

Upon graduation, Lee volunteered for a year with the St. Paul Tenants Union. “There I was introduced to the difference race makes in where you live and how you can live,” she said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”

That experience dissuaded her from attending law school. “Law seemed reactive to me,” she said. “I wanted to be proactive.” So she remained on the staff at the Tenants Union, eventually becoming its director.

That was during a time of gentrification in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood. “It was in the early ’80s,” she said. “African-American families were being pushed out by developers. But back then there were better options for families being evicted. They could become eligible for new housing and even furnished housing in 48 hours with rent based on household income.”

In the mid-80s, Lee bumped into an employee in the Alumni Affairs Office at St. Catherine who told her the college had an opening in fundraising. “It was an important time at St. Kate’s,” she said. “The college had its first lay president (Anita Pampusch), and she was an extraordinary, visionary leader.”

Lee left St. Catherine in 1994 and moved to Washington, D.C., where Scheibel had accepted a position as deputy director of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). There, Lee again found herself in the right place at the right time. “I ran into someone who suggested I look at the Center for Community Change,” she said. The civil rights organization was created in Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s name following his assassination in 1968.

Lee and Scheibel returned to St. Paul about five years later, and she joined Habitat for Humanity as the director of development and communication. She remained there for six years before moving on to the Crisis Nursery.

“Part of what has happened during my tenure at Crisis Nursery is getting a better understanding of what trauma does to children socially and emotionally and how we can help with that,” she said. “Trauma can impede the development of neurons and the size and function of the brain if left unattended. We’re working to change that. We’re beginning to help children come to grips with what’s happening to them. We’re working on helping them recognize triggers and self-soothing techniques.”

Lee has enormous respect for parents who call the Crisis Nursery for help. “Think how scary it is to call strangers and say, ‘Please take care of my kids,’” she said. “In return for their courage, we try to give parents resources, help them understand development and create bonds.

“Parents today have so many stresses,” Lee said. “My mother didn’t go back to work (outside the home) until my youngest sibling was in school. It’s overwhelming to have to work and take care of young children. There must be a greater awareness of how struggling parents need support.”

—Anne Murphy

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