Like many women of her generation, Lee Woodruff, 53, grew up believing in the importance of giving back.
But the writer and part-time correspondent for CBS This Morning, who is married to ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, never expected that the cause she’d embrace would be as an advocate for injured war veterans and their families.
For many years, the Westchester County, N.Y. couple had successful careers (Lee worked as a beauty industry PR exec), a happy marriage and a busy family life with four kids. But in 2006, their blissful world suddenly shattered.
Bob Woodruff's Near-Fatal Injury
As you might recall, when Bob was the newly appointed co-anchor of World News Tonight, he suffered a near-fatal brain injury from a roadside bomb while reporting from Iraq and spent 36 days in a coma.
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The road to recovery was long and difficult. Bob underwent multiple surgeries and an extensive rehabilitation process. Miraculously, just 13 months after the explosion, he returned to work as an ABC correspondent.
After seeing wounded veterans and their caregivers struggle to regain their lives, the Woodruffs were inspired to create the Bob Woodruff Foundation, which raises money and makes grants to innovative programs assisting veterans, their families and their caregivers.
The charitable foundation’s big annual fundraiser, Stand Up for Heroes, will be held on November 6 at Madison Square Garden (more on that in a bit). With Veteran’s Day approaching, I wanted to learn more about the Woodruffs’ foundation and the fundraiser — as well as Lee’s evolving writing career — so I reached out to her for an interview.
(MORE: Passionate About a Cause? Start a Nonprofit)
Highlights of our conversation:
The Bob Woodruff Foundation
“I always figured there would be a cause that I would feel passionate about,” says Lee. “But this lane chose me. I feel so connected to these families.”
Starting and building a foundation from the ground up was a new experience for the Woodruffs, and initially, the couple wasn’t sure how to best help veterans.
They quickly realized that rather than trying to start something new on their own, it would be more efficient to partner with existing organizations that served the veteran population. “The smartest thing we did was not to be a brick-and-mortar foundation, but instead function as a grant-making organization,” says Lee.
To date, their foundation has raised more than $16 million and supported over 80 organizations, focusing on ones that provide solutions in three key areas of need for veterans: rehabilitation and recovery; education and employment and quality of life.
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The foundation’s paid staff oversees day-to-day operations, but Lee and Bob are involved in a variety of ways, using their platform as journalists and speakers to raise funds and increase awareness of the needs of military families.
When I asked Lee what advice she’d have for others interested in starting foundations for causes they hold dear, she chuckled, saying: “This is not for the faint of heart. Before striking out on their own, I encourage them to find an organization they love and go work for them first.”
The Stand Up for Heroes Fundraiser
A joint effort of the New York Comedy Festival and the Bob Woodruff Foundation, the Nov. 6 Stand Up for Heroes evening will be held at Madison Square Garden and feature performances by Bill Cosby, Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters and The MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band.
All the performers and most of the security, PR and production staff donate their time and services. Last year, the event raised more than $3.5 million for the foundation.
As part of the fundraiser, the foundation flies over 100 veterans and their caregivers to New York City for a few days of relaxation. All the caregivers get treated to a day of pampering — a much needed respite made possible by the generosity of Lee’s colleagues and friends in the beauty business.
“It’s an enormous undertaking,” says Lee, who puts in lots of extra hours before the fundraiser, “but when I see the results, I know it is worth it.”
Lee’s First Novel
In addition to being a freelance writer, Lee is co-author with Bob of In An Instant, a Family’s Journey of Love and Healing, their gripping account of his injury and recovery, and the author of Perfectly Imperfect, a collection of essays.
She finds writing therapeutic; a way of making sense of what’s happening around her.
This past year, she realized a long-held professional dream, publishing her first novel — Those We Love Most — about a family who experiences their own “in an instant” moment when their nine-year-old son is killed by a car.
“I’ve wanted to write a novel since the time I was a little girl,” says Lee.
While the plot is fictitious, it’s clear that Lee’s life experience helped shape the story that’s centered on resilience, family dynamics and how people react to adversity.
“Becoming an author is one of the things I love most about being at this point in my life,” she says. “I’m really, really proud of this."