The D.C. area is mourning an advocate for people with disabilities.
Laura Lee wasn't just an advocate for people with Down syndrome, she lived her life with it. And she lived her life in a way that made others, including those without disabilities, look like they were standing still.
Simply put, Laura Lee did things first. The 33-year-old Oakton woman with Down syndrome died in her sleep last week. Her mom, Stephanie Lee, shared her memories of Laura with WUSA9.
"I'm proud that Laura was an inspiration to others, she was an inspiration to me and to others who could see what she was doing and accomplishing. It was a terrible shock, she was active and happy right up until the end."
Her father, Gen Lee, says Laura just wanted to be like everyone else. Laura broke barriers, becoming the first person with an intellectual disability to attend George Mason University.
Gen shared a story about how the family looked for a place for Laura to attend college but didn't see any universities that accommodated people with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities. They pushed forward, and Gen says, "Now George Mason has students from all over the country."
Laura testified before Congress, met senators and presidents, changed minds and policies, was an advocate and was independent. She worked at the World Bank and commuted every day with an assistant.
"One of the adjectives I think of when I think of Laura is courage," Stephanie said. "She wasn't expected to live when she was born with a severe heart defect and she was a strong person even then."
Laura underwent several heart operations in her life. Ultimately, her heart gave out and she died in her sleep.
Pictures and flowers fill the Lee's Oakton home, illustrating a life lived fully. Laura liked to dance, volunteer, travel and give toasts at weddings.
"Looking back, she opened the door and pioneered a path," Gen said.
"Others could see her doing things and think 'well if Laura can do that, I can do that, or my child can do that,'" Stephanie said.
Laura was the first person with Down syndrome to testify before the Fairfax County School Board, Virginia Board of Education, Virginia General Assembly and Congress.
Laura's contributions to the Down syndrome community continue after her death. Two memorial funds have been set up to help students in two educational programs Laura was instrumental in creating:
Laura Jean Elizabeth Lee Mason LIFE Memorial Fund.
Checks should be made out to: George Mason University Foundation.
In the "memo" line of the check, write: Laura Jean Elizabeth Lee Mason LIFE Memorial Fund.
Checks should be mailed to: GMU Foundation, Inc., 400 University Drive, MSN 1A3, Fairfax, VA 22030.
Online donations may be made through fasterfarther.gmu.edu.
Click on the "GIVE" tab at the top of the page.
In the text box next to the words "If "Other,' indicate fund here" type in: Laura Jean Elizabeth Lee Mason LIFE Memorial Fund.
Complete the remaining required fields and submit.
Laura Jean Elizabeth Lee Paul VI Catholic High School Options Memorial Scholarship Fund
Checks should be made out to Paul VI Catholic High School.
On the memo line, write Laura J. E. Lee Options Scholarship Fund.
Checks should be mailed to: Paul VI Catholic High School, Attn: Advancement, 10675 Fairfax Boulevard, Fairfax, VA 22030.
Online donations may be made through https://www.paulvi.net/donate.
Under "Designation" choose, "Memorial Gift" from the drop-down menu.
Click on "Add Donation."
The following screen will have an "Additional Information" section with a comment box. In the comment box please type: Laura J. E. Lee Options Scholarship Fund.
Visitation will be held at Fairfax Memorial Funeral Home on Friday, March 18, 2016, from 5-8 p.m. Funeral Services will be held at Vienna Presbyterian Church on Saturday, March 19, 2016, at 1:00 pm, followed by a reception. Services and burial will take place at Bellerive Gardens Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri at 11 a.m. on Saturday, March 26, 2016.
Correction: An earlier vision of this story misidentified Stephanie as an assistant at one point in the story