Larry Lee Jr. grew up in a mostly African American neighborhood where everyone truly cared about one another. “It was like a village,” he says of the area in the 1960s and ’70s. “People looked out for each other and took pride in their neighborhood. Blacks stayed together to protect each other.”
But over the years, the area in Fort Pierce known as Lincoln Park fell into disrepair. Crime escalated, and gangs flourished. “I saw how depressed the area had become,” he recalls. “There seemed to be no pride and no hope.” So Lee—who by that time had achieved success as a Florida State Representative, owner of an insurance agency, and partner in a radio station—decided to change that.
Years earlier, he had started a not-for-profit called the Lighthouse Foundation, focused on improving the lives of youth, senior citizens, and others in the community. Under the foundation umbrella, he launched an initiative called Restoring the Village in 2013 to help rejuvenate the Lincoln Park neighborhood. “I had a vision to bring back the village environment of the Lincoln Park community I grew up in,” he says.
Restoring the Village aims to break the cycle of generational poverty in Lincoln Park, restore hope and pride in the area, and create educational opportunities for youth. Volunteers paint and repair homes, install landscaping for veterans and seniors, and generally beautify the neighborhood, including a previously neglected cemetery. The initiative also provides educational opportunities such as the Restoring the Village Endowment Fund at Indian River State College. “It gives kids hope that if they do well and want to attend college, we are there to help them,” says Lee. “Education is key to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.”
Currently, the Lighthouse Foundation is partnering with the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Lucie County and First Tee Youth Golf Program to create a Lighthouse Youth Activities Complex. Set to be completed in the next two years, the center will feature an 8,000-square-foot clubhouse with a computer lab, meeting rooms, and a café, as well as a nine-hole, par-3 golf course. “To the best of my knowledge, there is no Boys & Girls Club facility in America like this one,” Lee says. “Our plans include creating jobs for the kids, as they will maintain the golfing facility and operate the snack shop. We intend to teach entrepreneurship.”
Lee says he wants to give back because so many people have helped him throughout his life. “I had some amazing people in my life,” he says. “I owe all those people, and I must pay it forward. One of seven children, he describes himself as a tall, skinny kid without much self-esteem. But when a friend convinced him to try out for his high school football team, the change was dramatic. “Football turned my life around,” he says. “It taught me how to work with other people and how to build a team.” He hadn’t originally planned on attending college, so when he later changed his mind, he didn’t have the necessary high school pre-requisites. Turned down by several schools, he made a desperate phone call to a football coach at Livingstone, a small, historically black college in North Carolina, and pleaded for admission and a spot on the team. “I told him, ‘I’ll be the best player you ever coached,’” says Lee. And it worked. “The coach saw something in me that I didn’t.”
He did well on the football field—but in the classroom, not so much. “I was about to flunk out,” recalls Lee. “I prayed to God that if he allowed me to graduate and achieve some financial success, I would never forget those who are less fortunate.”
He did graduate—and he also met Alice, the woman who would become his wife. Flush with success, Lee signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos but was cut during preseason. Disheartened, he returned to Fort Pierce. “I felt like I’d let the community down,” he says.
While working through his disappointment, he visited his grandmother in Georgia. They were chatting on the porch when a teacher from the local high school stopped by to say hello. Coincidentally, the school was looking for a physical education instructor and coach. Lee landed the job.
After he and Alice married, they moved back to Fort Pierce, where he began volunteering at the local chamber of commerce. “It gave me great insight into the community,” Lee says. “It was an opportunity to meet people who didn’t look like me, and for people who didn’t look like me to meet people like me.” Eventually, he became the chamber’s first black board member. He went on to open an insurance agency and acquire a radio station that became WFLM The Flame 104.5.
In 2012, Lee was elected to the Florida House of Representatives. “People had been encouraging me for years to run for public office,” he says. “When I finally did, my goal was to get Democrats and Republicans to work together more for the benefit of the people.”
While there is still much to be done in Lincoln Park, Lee says he sees encouraging progress: “I’m hopeful. It’s not where it needs to be, but I see hope for a positive future. Restoring the Village is an example of what can happen when the community comes together to focus on things that unite us, rather than things that divide us.”