Kasama Lee was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand until she was 14. She came to the United States because “my parents decided they wanted to start over in the U.S. We had family members in southern California, and that was where we lived. My parents came to California first, and I joined them a few years after.”
Before coming to northern California, Kasama lived in different parts of the U.S., including Lexington, Kentucky, and Illinois. Initially, Kasama came to San Jose and met her husband, Bart, in San Francisco. “I was working in financial services in Daly City. I started working in real estate two years after moving to American Canyon. My sister-in-law was buying a home in American Canyon, and at the time, Bart and I were renting in San Bruno. So every weekend, we would follow them around like little kids. I was five months pregnant with Kwin (her oldest son, now a student at Napa Valley Community College), and I said, ‘we need to buy a house,’ and Bart said, ‘With what? We don’t have any money.’
“At the time, I was at an internet startup company and I had a ton of stock options. So I asked my boss if I could sell some of them, and he said, ‘Do it, do what’s best for your family.’ So that was our down payment on the house in American Canyon. “We found a home with a bedroom and full bathroom downstairs, so my parents could live with us. That’s how we ended up here.” Kwin was born two months after they bought their house and moved to AC. “Kwin’s age makes it easy to remember how long we’ve lived here. It’s been 19 years now.”
Bart is a CPA and, until recently, commuted to the financial district in San Francisco three days a week. “The pandemic taught us how to be creative, and Bart was productive working at home,” Kasama offers. She has also transitioned to working from home. “I love Zoom. I would present offers on Zoom, and meet with my clients on Zoom.” Bart recently left his career as a certified public accountant (CPA), and he now works with Kasama in real estate. Happily, Bart just received his real estate license, so he and Kasama work side by side. “We work really well together. We’re going to make a great team. I’m excited about that. It will truly be a family business. Kwin does a little bit to help me.”
After finishing his studies at Napa Valley Community College (NVC), Kwin plans to transfer to where he’s accepted at UC Campus or at San Jose State and major in computer science. Kasama’s younger son, Ari, is an American Canyon High School senior and wants to be a business major.
“Bart and I came from very humble beginnings. We grew up poor. We had to figure out ways to go to college and get grants. We tell our boys about it. They don’t have an allowance. If you don’t forget where you come from, then money will never be the reason for important decisions. Our kids are not demanding, and they are not into material things. I am really appreciative of their perspective.”
Kasama is also dedicated to helping American Canyon youth. “My first exposure was through my previous church. I because a certified leadership coach, and I was invited to speak to a group of youth who were going to be Christian camp counselors during the summer in this rustic place called Redwood Glen. That was where I realized that was my purpose. “I connected with the youth, and they were sharing their vulnerabilities and what they wanted in life, how they were told they wouldn’t materialize into anything. My heart just hurt because they deserved to discover their life purpose.”
“So I realized I’m supposed to be doing this body of work with the youth. I usually get emotional when I talk about this. On the 4th of July, I ran into Rodrick Sweeney, AC Parks and Rec Supervisor. We started chatting, and he said the Parks and Rec Dept. had started a youth program. Parks and Rec had hired a youth rec leader, but he passed away unexpectedly, and that message was left in my heart. I went back to Rodrick and explored the youth rec leader role. He hired me, and just like that, I became the Youth Coordinator for Parks and Rec in 2012. That was when my work with the youth took off.
I was working part-time for Parks and Rec. That role got me on American Canyon High School (ACHS) Campus. Beth Goff, who is an English teacher at the high school, was able to get me a classroom. That first group of kids was special to me. They became like family to me. During this time, my mom passed away, and those kids were there for me. They brought me balloons and handwritten messages about how I impacted their lives. “When we celebrated my mom’s life, the church was packed with kids who didn’t even know my mom. The kids all wore purple (my mom’s favorite color). Fast forward to now, I have cofounded ACHS Career Day. This is our tenth year, and we are planning a virtual event this year. I’m proud to report that Napa Valley Unified School District (NVUSD) adopted this program, where all the other high schools will also get to participate in Career Day.”
Kasama’s impact on high school students has been recognized by NVUSD, and now she is asked to do presentations at different schools. She recently did one at Valley Oaks Alternative High School in Ms. Jo Ann Clark’s class. “I know that working with students is one of my purposes. I do real estate, so I am in a position to give back. The thing about money is if you use it wisely, it can help so many others. The question is, ‘What are you doing with it (money) while you are alive?’ Anything that has to do with youth, I either give my time or money. You do things because it has an impact or makes you feel good. It’s part of who I am. It keeps me grounded.”
“I always come away with such a fulfilling feeling when I work with kids. It’s such a blessing. I don’t do things because I want something back. I do them because it makes me feel good. My kids have told me it’s a curse and a blessing to be my kids because all their friends know me!”
“My kids were always with me when I would run a workshop with other kids, so they know what I do and why I do it. The kids I’ve worked with and have graduated from colleges still remember Kwin and Ari.” Kasama says that “Money is a tool to me. If you use it wisely, you can help so many people.”
Kasama’s involvement with ACCPF goes back to the original planning meetings before the Foundation existed. “There were five or six of us, including Andrea Long, Joy Hilton, Heather Piazza, who headed up marketing, Belia Ramos, the mayor, and Creighton Wright (then head of the Parks and Recreation Dept.) We became founding board members. I was on the ACCPF board for a couple of years. After working on “Evening at the Ruins,” which required a lot of volunteer time, I was like, ‘Can I just give you money? My time became limited running a business.” she continued. But not so limited that she can’t find time for her passion.
Kasama is dedicated to helping students develop lifelong professional skills they can take with them as they leave school and enter the professional world. She speaks to classes at schools in the Napa Unified School District (NVUSD), including American Canyon High School, American Canyon Middle School, Canyon Oaks Elementary School, and others. “I wasn’t meant to be a teacher, but I was meant to do this work exactly the way that I do it. I would tell them my story about how I didn’t even like school and some of them need to hear that. I was pushed against the wall. I was bullied. I was unhappy. I would tell them, ‘What you’ve gone through and are going through, I’ve gone through that, too. I just decided one day, either I’m going to be a victim for the rest of my life, or I’m going to change my circumstance. And you can, too.”
“I would tell them, ‘Write this down. Never forget where you came from. Each and every one of you is special. You don’t know what you’re capable of yet, but you are meant to do something great.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, be a successful one, because you can’t give back if you don’t become successful in what you do. Do what you love to do, don’t do anything just for the money. Be true to yourself. Don’t pretend to be somebody you’re not.”
In listening to Kasama, it’s clear that she views working with students as her life’s calling, something that gives her purpose above and beyond her professional real estate accomplishments.
Returning to the discussion of ACCPF, Kasama reflects that “it is one of the most successful nonprofit organizations ever formed in our little city, and I’m so proud of it. First of all, it’s not just about Janelle (Sellick, ACCPF’s Executive Director), it’s the whole leadership team and her ability to attract quality people on the board.
“I have told her, ‘I am so proud of you for having the vision and having the courage to follow through and execute that vision.’ And yet, this whole time she is one of the most humble persons you could ever meet and the most supportive person. She remains positive regardless of what the challenges are.”
“When we first started, some people thought it was a joke. ‘You’re going to get money for the city to do what?’ And yet, ACCPF has raised more than a million dollars. It has been my privilege to have been on the board,” Kasama adds.
Reflecting on the influence of ACCPF, Kasama notes, “When you become an integral part, in some way, shape or form, in a community, it’s not just about living here, you’re contributing to the city where you live.”