■ By Mike Hiles / Contributed
As 2016 comes to a close, the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians recognized Cindy Lee as Employee of the Year and Susan Simmons as Manager of the Year during its annual holiday party at the Country Club at Soboba Springs.
Lee, who teaches kindergarten at the Soboba Tribal Preschool, was honored for her outstanding service to the children, fellow staff and administration. Nominated by the preschool’s director, Dianne King, Lee was cited for her dedication and helpfulness.
“Cindy goes above and beyond communicating with all parents at the preschool,” King said. “She is also our liaison for parents that have children with special needs.”
Lee started working as a teacher for the three-year-old class at the reservation’s preschool in 2009. She had been assistant director of a Kindercare program before working for Soboba.
“At Kindercare, I enjoyed the customer service part of my job and mentoring new preschool teachers,” said Lee, of San Jacinto. “Here, I enjoy the children and using my degree in curriculum to help reach every child and engage them in learning.”
Lee said when she was in kindergarten, she drew a picture of herself as a teacher when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. She admits it was a long road to get there.
“I went to school for 13 years, taking one or two classes at a time before I was finally able to go part-time at my job and finish my bachelor’s degree at California State University, San Bernardino,” she explained. “Shortly after I had my last child, who was born with Down syndrome, I completed my master’s with honors but was unable to fully use my degree because my child came first.”
Lee’s son, Aidan, loves hockey so she and her husband became coaches for EEK Fitness so they could introduce the game of floor hockey to local special needs children and adults. Last season, there were 15 members on the team.
“Every year we take the whole team to an Ontario Reign game and buy them a puck,” she said. “We try to give them the whole hockey experience.”
Kindergarten is Lee’s favorite grade to teach because the children are independent and can do many skills for themselves yet they are innocent in so many ways and still eager to learn and believe in magic. She has 17 in her class this year.
“They have a wonderful imagination and are beginning to think critically and outside the box,” Lee said. “Their natural curiosity and inquisitive questions often help me to grow and learn right along with them.”
King says Lee has a way of keeping the children excited about new projects and experiments in the classroom.
“I was in total shock when I was named Employee of the Year,” Lee said. “I feel greatly honored and appreciated. I am so grateful to serve the tribe and help learn and grow along with their children.”
Simmons, controller at the Soboba Tribal Administration Accounting Department, was singled out for her outstanding ability at managing nine full-time employees in the accounting department.
“I was totally surprised to receive this award; it was very unexpected,” Simmons said. “I am deeply, deeply honored and humbled to receive it. This award means so much to me and I cannot thank Tribal Council enough.”
Born and raised in Minnesota, she said her current residence in the Pioneertown/Yucca Valley area is a “great old western town.” She has worked in the field of accounting for more than 25 years in positions of controller and director of accounting/finance. She spent about 20 years in the hospital finance field and has been at Soboba for seven.
“I love working with numbers and the interaction with people,” Simmons said. “I was a math nerd as a kid so I guess it was a natural progression for me to move into the accounting field.”
She looks forward to continuing to provide accurate, timely financial information for the tribe. Each year the department has an extensive external audit to ensure the accuracy of all its financials.
“I am only as good as the staff I work with so I also thank them for all the hard work they have done this past year,” Simmons said. “I want to be sure we continue to provide five-star, exceptional accounting services to the tribe and all of its members – that means a lot to me. It is such a privilege to be working here with Michael Castello and Ruben DeLosSantos.”