The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

March 17, 2013

Signature Health chief executive officer inspires audience with his life story

By WARREN DILLAWAY - warren@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

SAYBROOK TOWNSHIP — More than 50 men gathered to make the first step to making a difference in the community Saturday at St. John High School.

“We look at Ashtabula 100 as we are a year away from a real 100,” said Terrence Henton who helped facilitate the gathering designed to empower black men willing to select a goal and work toward making it a reality.

Keynote speaker Jonathan Lee, chief executive officer of Signature Health, shared his life story that started in tragedy, became embroiled in addiction and moved on to healing and success.

Lee grew up in Cleveland in a home with poverty, gambling and drug addiction. “My father was a Vietnam War veteran. We were very poor, we were on food stamps,” he said.

“When I was about 4 years old my mother decided to divorce my father,” Lee said. He said he was in the living room and his father came in the back door, walked through the room and shot his mother to death.

He said the children didn’t know what to do. “All we could think about was to get paper towels to clean up the blood,” Lee said.

“I was taken from that situation and was sent to live with my grandmother,” Lee said. He said his grandfather died shortly thereafter and he was lonely, feeling abandoned in a predominantly white community.

Around the age of 14 Lee said he began to experiment with drugs and the experiment went bad quickly. “I pretty much used everything I could put my hands on,” Lee said.

“I became a thief and a liar,” Lee said of the next several years of his life.

An assistant principal at Lyndhurst High School finally broke through the lies and confronted him about his drug problem.

“I’m using (drugs) every day and I can’t stop,” he told the school administrator.

“He (the assistant principal) got the wheels in motion to send me to treatment,” Lee said of the 30-day stint at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cleveland.

Lee said he was then sent to a halfway house for four and a half months.

“Nothing short of a miracle took place,” Lee said of the transition in his life.

“I said to myself. Let’s give this a shot. It was the hardest thing I had to do in my life,” he said.

Lee said he learned that it wasn’t the circumstances or his poverty that put him in the clutches of drug addiction, but his own choices.

At age 17 Lee said he realized that his mission in life was to spread the message of recovery to as many people as possible.

Lee said he was able to work with a variety of drug addicted high school students from East Cleveland Shaw, to Gilmour Academy, to Ashtabula and Chagrin Falls.

“I would see the entire socio-economic span ... and they all had drug problems. There was no difference,” he said.

Lee urged those in attendance to let Saturday’s event make a difference in their lives. “Don’t take what you get today and stick it on a shelf,” he said.

At 23 Lee decided he wanted to develop a business that would help people in recovery and a variety of other issues.

An investment banker from Cleveland put him through his paces to see if he really wanted to build a business. Chandler Everett, the banker, asked Lee to build a business plan and then marked it up seeking changes.

“He did that to me 10 times and it was about the sixth time I realized he was testing me,” Lee said.

Everett and a friend kicked in $10,000 each and Lee invested the only money he had $2,000 and the business was born.

“You are looking at the chief executive officer and the janitor,” Lee said.

Lee urged the men to persevere and make a difference in the community. He has already made a commitment to the city of Ashtabula by re-constructing the old Ashtabula Hotel into a the headquarters for Signature Health.

“You can drive into downtown Ashtabula and see opportunity or you can see poverty,” he said.