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Hometown Hero, Hyon-Chin Lee, is executive director for the Oakland-based non-profit, The Link to Children, which provides early intervention mental health services to children 5 and under. (Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND -- Hyon-Chin Lee buzzes around her office like a hummingbird gathering pollen.

As her phone rings continuously, Lee is racing to finish a handful of tasks before she sits down for an interview to discuss her work as leader of The Link to Children, a not-for-profit mental health organization.

"When I do things, I do them 110 percent," Lee said. "I have a job that I am passionate about and dedicated to."

That passion and dedication has transformed The Link to Children from a little-known group into a flowering organization that is constantly attempting to broaden its reach.

Lee, 40, better known as "HC" to friends and colleagues, is credited with sparking that growth since her hiring in 2010 to lead the organization, which helps young children, from infants to 5-year-olds, cope with mental distress.

"HC brings an energy to the team, a momentum (that) we need to do better," said Victor Vazquez, president of the organization's board of directors. "She just can't stand still; she wants to make things happen like yesterday."

'Energy and vision'

Founded in 1996 by child psychologist Grace Manning-Orenstein, The Link to Children was born to address future mental health problems early, while children's brains are still developing.

Manning-Orenstein's idea was to place clinical psychologists in preschool classrooms to observe behaviors and intervene when a toddler appeared to be having problems. The goal was to stabilize a child's mental health before age 5 -- when most brains are almost fully developed.

The organization also worked with the Alameda County Family Justice Center, where it begins treating young children with parents struggling with domestic disputes or those who are victims of violent crimes.

"It was a really innovative, out-of-the-box way of thinking because most people were unclear about what early childhood mental health is," Lee said. "The brain is almost fully developed by age 5; that is your window of opportunity."

The organization hummed along, treating preschool-age children for more than a decade with Manning-Orenstein leading, but the founder's time was split between being an administrator and a clinician.

Manning-Orenstein and the board agreed that a new, full-time leader was necessary for the survival of the group, and Lee was the perfect choice, many said.

When Lee was hired, the organization was struggling to gain funding, and many working with the group thought its footprint needed to expand. Lee's energy, experience and game plan for the organization impressed the board.

"There were other applicants, but they didn't have the same kind of energy and vision that she had," said Alicia Flores, the board president when Lee was hired. "We had been around for 14 years and people didn't know about us. We needed someone who could express and show a lot of innovation."

Lee did just that as she found new funding partners, expanded services and organized The Link to Children's first fundraising campaign. Since being hired, Lee has doubled its budget, expanded its staff by hiring more clinical psychologists, and created an internship program.

'Still not enough'

Lee accomplished those tasks while raising four children: 9-year-old triplets and a 4-year-old. In addition, one of her triplets was born with brain damage, requiring Lee and her husband to seek out new educational programs and provide intensive care.

"I'm not easily impressed, but she is a dynamo," said Cherri Allison, executive director of the Alameda County Family Justice Center. "Words cannot describe that kind of energy and enthusiasm for the work that she has."

Lee said her determination to succeed is rooted in her childhood, during which she witnessed racism firsthand as a Korean immigrant living in a working-class suburb of Chicago.

Lee, whose second language is English and who also speaks Spanish, said she and her brother were harassed in school, and she remembers when the parents of her brother's prom date would not allow the girl to go to the prom because her brother was Korean.

Rather than succumb to the harassment, Lee said she fought back, becoming the high school class president and captain of the cheerleading squad.

Her determination also helped her get into the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago graduate school, where she studied social work.

Lee said she is proud of the recognition she has received and hopes it translates into more funding opportunities for the organization.

"I am really proud of this, but it is still not enough," she said. "I hope this will allow us to educate the public and reach the right people who have deeper pockets."

Hyon-Chin Lee
Age: 40
Hometown: Danville
Claim to Fame: Executive director for The Link to Children
Quote: "When I do things, I do them 110 percent."
Hometown Heroes, a partnership between Bay Area News Group-East Bay and Comcast, celebrates people in the Bay Area who make a difference in their communities. Read about a new Hometown Hero every other week and watch the program on Comcast On Demand at Channel One-Get Local-Hometown Heroes. Do you know a Hometown Hero? Let us know about the work they do at HometownHeroes@bayareanewsgroup.com.