There was nothing special about the day that Lee Rousseau decided to walk into T.J. Maxx in downtown Seattle last spring. “I love going there to find inspiration for decorating,” she said, and an impromptu visit to the store was just that. Little did she know it would lead her on a journey to inspire others.
“A salesperson asked me if I’d be interested in speaking with Katherine Schwarzenegger, who I later found out was Arnold’s (Schwarzenegger) daughter,” she explains. Lee had the day off from work so had some extra time and said yes. “It was like I was talking to my best friend,” she says of speaking with Katherine.
During their chat, Lee learned that T.J. Maxx had launched a national campaign called “Road to Real,” a quest to uncover real women with incredible stories doing inspirational things and living their lives in their own unique way. T.J. Maxx was seeking five women to spotlight and give a platform for their stories to be heard.
Lee thought nothing much of talking to Katherine that day other than what a lovely person she was, and how easy it was to open and share about some of her life experiences with her.
“She asked me how many children I had, and I said I now have 3 kids,” Lee said. “When she questioned me further, I explained that just two years ago I reunited with my daughter I had given up for adoption when I was 19 years old.”
Lee had fallen on hard times and decided it was best to give her daughter to a loving family. She only held her daughter for a few hours – the day after her 19th birthday – before she was brought to her new family. “I never knew her name or where she grew up, but she’s always been in my mind and soul,” she says.
Lee went on to art school, traveled, and married and raised two children, Justine and Tanner, in Vancouver, B.C. and eventually moved to Seattle.
Fast forward 33 years to a phone call Lee received from her son, Tanner. He told his mom that he had connected with his other sister and wanted to pick her up and meet Lee for Christmas in Vancouver. The other sister was Susan, who found Tanner via Facebook and social media.
Lee and Susan met on Christmas Day for lunch. “She was like an old friend I hadn’t seen in years,” says Lee. “She had a baby on her hip and it was so easy to talk with her, and my son helped keep things light.”
They learned that Susan lived only 4-5 blocks from where Lee raised her other two children in Vancouver for a few years until she moved to the states. Lee and Susan discovered that they had very similar backgrounds, including attending the same art school and extensive travel for both before marrying and raising a family. Susan lived in Scotland for 10 years before she returned to Vancouver to raise her son and begin her search for her biological mother.
“At that first lunch, Susan said, ‘my parents want to thank you,’” explains Lee. “It meant so much.”
Lee’s story struck a chord with Katherine that day at T.J. Maxx, and she was chosen from over 500 women to be highlighted in their “Road to Real” campaign.
“I got an email from someone at T.J. Maxx saying I’d been chosen and would I join them in New York City in September for their event?” Lee explains. “I didn’t believe it at first, but it was all true!”
Lee won an all-expenses paid trip to NYC and shared her story with four other women from around the country through a media event and pop-up gallery showcasing the five women and their stories. The women’s stories with photos and inspiring words were hung throughout the gallery. Lee’s inspiring quotes were: “My parents want to thank you.” And “You were a gift to me and to others who couldn’t have children.”
The messages from the Road to Real campaign were about highlighting women who live life on their own terms; have an inherent altruism, persevere, and are an everyday inspiration.
“My main take-away from the event was meeting the four other women who were also chosen – they were all so inspirational,” Lee says. “People just don’t listen anymore – we all have a story but there’s so much disconnect. Katherine sat down and really listened to my story, and look what happened!” Lee explains. “It was a great, heartfelt campaign. I was so honored.”