Feature Story – Dawn Lee


Mrs. Patricia Chong (right), Special Needs Coordinator and team at an outreach program.

Do women have a certain soft skill set that makes them better leaders than men? For instance, it is thought that women are more likely to possess traits such as empathy, vulnerability, humility, inclusiveness, generosity, balance, patience whereas men are generally lacking in them. Studies have also indicated that women use these qualities more effectively to reach their goals. Whatever your point of view, it is undeniable that there are many great female leaders in the world today who bring distinct personality and motivational strengths to the role of leadership. To try and gain a better understanding of this issue, we interviewed a Bruneian woman whose deep sense of compassion for others is fuelling her drive to empower members of our community who are physically and mentally challenged. Mrs. Dawn Lee has been the Manager at La Vida since 2011. She is a lady who knows what it is like to have unexpected illness strike in a family. She has experienced the fear, anxiety, sense of confusion and hopelessness that families feel when a loved one suddenly develops a disease like cancer or has a mental breakdown. As well as this, Dawn has also worked closely with special needs children and their parents for many years, so she understands the mountain of difficulties and uncertainties that they often have to face. This is why Dawn and her loyal team of volunteers, continue to work tirelessly to make La Vida a sanctuary of support and solace for parents and children with special needs; and for anyone who is experiencing unexpected mental or physical challenges. As she said, “Regardless of race, religion or creed – anyone who needs help is welcome here.” So what does it take to successfully lead this type of organisation? We discovered that it’s definitely a combination of the above mentioned personal traits, but more importantly, it is an irrefutable belief in the cause and a blatant refusal to give up!

“We want to encourage people to see how volunteerism can change lives – theirs and the people they work with.”

Dawn Lee, Manager of La Vida

Dawn’s concern for the well-being of others is at the core of her leadership style.
As a wife and mother of two teenage children, Dawn brings her caring and nurturing skills from home to her role at La Vida. She and her team are there to offer guidance, advice and most of all support to any family that walks into the centre. As a Bruneian Dawn is aware of the many cultural differences and expectations, so she listens attentively and can competently assess each situation. She would then either suggest programs that people can get involved with at the centre or connect them with other relevant sources of help. In terms of her relationship with her staff, she sees them as part of her family. She trusts and respects her staff; encourages them to learn and grow; listens to their ideas and allows them to become involved in collaborative decision making. However, Dawn’s ultimate aim is to create an environment in which “we all reach out to each other with genuine care, compassion and respect.” This she believes is crucial to the stability and continued success of the organisation.

Turning ideas into action is one of her main challenges.
Dawn tackles this with grit, creative ideas and a lot of optimism. Having limited resources at her disposal, she has to rely on her ideas, networking skills and most of all her team. Having worked for 12 years with both local and regional non-profit organisations; and having acquired professional training in South Africa, Singapore and Malaysia, Dawn uses this knowledge and experience to come up with innovative ways to utilise her greatest asset – people. Dawn explained, “La Vida started in 2007 as a toy library and a parent resource centre. However, today we are growing and our needs are expanding. Currently we are trying to include professional therapists in the area of Special Needs because we know how important it is for parents to get accurate and up-to-date information at the earliest stage possible. At the same time we are also working hard to recruit volunteers as their contribution is invaluable in so many ways.” In order to accomplish these goals, Dawn has to rely on a steady stream of supporters and sponsors like local businesses, craft groups and other individuals who understand the importance and urgency of the La Vida cause. It is with this help, that La Vida was able to organise events such as the Special Olympics, the Charity Golf Competition and the Craft Bazaar.

Being solution-focused with the ability to dream and envision different ways of doing things is yet another one of Dawn’s strengths.
First and foremost, Dawn and her team firmly believe that their mission is to remove “labels” and to make sure that everyone is included. The aim is to give everyone the opportunity to develop to their fullest potential. In terms of special needs children, the team at La Vida works to connect families and to help empower them to help their special needs children in simple ways. For example, she encourages families to let their children participate in playgroups; take the kids on outings to the Mall and Tasek Lama; and get involved in sporting events, music and art lessons. Dawn explained that, “It’s amazing to see these kids’ blossom when they are exposed to activities which take place in a safe and supportive environment. The families also feel so much happier!” In addition to this, the team also provides support to patients at RIPAS by organising extra activities that are fun and engaging. As Dawn said, “I believe that by finding new ways to include people who are “different”, society will begin to see their potential and ability to grow and contribute – in their own unique ways.”

She works synergistically in order to sow seeds of greatness for the future.
In charge of promoting Asset Based Community Development, Dawn has to communicate the purpose of La Vida to local and regional businesses, schools, community groups and volunteers. Her challenge is to get different people to work together to support the centre. So how does she rally these people to this cause? With passion and sincerity! Recently, she and her team had a booth at UBD to try and increase public awareness of their work; and to try to get more people interested in volunteering at the centre. Dawn explained, “We want to encourage people to see how volunteerism can change lives – both theirs and the people they work with. At La Vida our volunteers learn a lot and end up feeling a sense of fulfilment from the connections that they make with the special needs children. And part of my job is to educate them about what we do.” She further explained, “Seeing the young volunteers develop and form bonds with the children and understand what it is like to walk in their shoes; and seeing how they become more aware and accepting of people who are “different” is very rewarding for me.” Dawn even recalled that one of her volunteers went on to study architecture and because of his experience at La Vida, he is now determined to design buildings in Brunei that are more suitable for people with special needs. It is clear that Dawn has many ideas for the future and wants to see this centre flourish for the benefit of everyone. No matter what, this is a woman who will continue to use her patience, empathy, generosity of spirit and determination to find new ways to bring people together to keep La Vida functioning as a vital part of our community

This article was published in the Jul-Sept 2015 issue of Inspire Magazine. Download it here!