Lee Podolak; 'Voice of Social Justice' in O.C.


Lee Podolak, a forceful community advocate who put homeless people on Orange County's agenda, will be remembered at a memorial service today by colleagues and peers who called her "irreplaceable."

Podolak, 67, died Friday after a battle with cancer.

The longtime resident of Orange spent nearly half her life working as a volunteer in various community organizations where she did everything from licking envelopes to pestering legislators.

"I think of Lee as the voice of social justice in this county," said Bill Fogarty, executive director of the United Labor Agency, where Podolak served as vice chairwoman of the board of directors for three years.

Fogarty, who worked with Podolak for 20 years on a variety of boards striving for better lives for the working poor, said her passionate advocacy resulted in expanding shelters and the building of new ones.

Others remembered her as "a bridge builder" who could inspire people to work toward a common goal.

"I think she [was] one of the greatest advocates [for the low income and homeless] in Orange County's history," said Karen Roper, the county's homeless prevention coordinator. "She really had . . . an ability to bring diverse groups together, city, county agencies, nonprofits. . . . She was an inspiration and a mentor to me."

For nine years, Podolak served as president of the Orange County Homeless Issues Task Force. She also was on the boards of the Orange County Emergency Food and Shelter Board Program, Housing California, the Leadership Council for Housing and Community Development, Community Forum, the Orange County Community Housing Corp. and the Kennedy Commission, a nonprofit group that advocates construction of affordable housing. A longtime active member of the League of Women Voters, she headed the Orange County chapter from 1983 to 1986.

Allen Baldwin, executive director of Orange County Community Housing Corp., said Podolak differed from many activists who tend to get involved in public issues only when their neighborhoods or homes are affected.

"Citizenship leadership and citizen advocacy is a dying avocation," he said. "Lee was tremendously different in that way. She would drag the rest of us along. She would take the message to the state. We don't have another person like her waiting in the wings. With her passing, that is our task: to energize more citizen advocates like her."

Podolak is survived by two children, Manya Stanciu, 32, and Rick Podolak, 38. She was preceded in death by husband Gerald Podolak.

Lee Podolak was born in Long Island, N.Y., and moved to Orange in 1963. She received a bachelor's degree in biology from Adelphi University and a master's degree in science from Northwestern University. She worked at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles and UCI Medical Center in Orange in cancer and respiratory disease research.

She became active in the community in the 1970s, Stanciu said, and ran unsuccessfully for a City Council seat in Orange in 1974.

In the last decade, she had multiple battles with cancer, her daughter said.

While she was remembered in the community as an untiring advocate, Stanciu knew her mother more as a lunch mate, shopping companion, friend and advisor, whose most important advice was, "Always look out for yourself and then look out for those around you. Make sure you always do for others."

The memorial service will be from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. today at the West Coast Anaheim Hotel, 1855 S. Harbor Blvd.

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