Aaron Lee is a strong man.
Known for his physical strength, competing nationally in strong man competitions, Lee also exhibits a profound inner strength in finding new ways to honor his late son.
“Even at a young age, we saw the strength of his spirit,” Lee said. “We knew he was a fighter.”
Aaron Daniel Lee, Jr., affectionately nicknamed AJ, was born May 10, 2016. At five-months-old, he was shaken by his caregiver, resulting in an extended hospital stay and a future complicated by the unknown long-term effects of brain damage.
“We weren’t sure if he was going to be able to breathe again on his own,” Lee said. “When he took his first unassisted breath we had a lot of hope.”
Over the next year and a half, AJ continued an extensive physical therapy regimen to strengthen his muscles and re-learn simple tasks, such as how to swallow. At every turn, Lee was there with an encouraging word or a funny joke.
“I will never forget the first time I heard him laugh (after the accident),” Lee said. “Even at a young age, I think he had my sense of humor.”
Despite AJ’s challenges, after the father-son duo watched a strong man documentary on television, Lee decided that this would be something they could do together.
With the help of fellow strong man, and good friend, Nick Kahanic, Lee began to train and used the phrase AJ Strong to push himself. In June 2018, one month before his first competition, AJ passed away.
Since then, Lee has immersed himself into giving children and families, as well as caregivers who may be struggling, a voice. He has spoken publicly to parent groups and bereavement support groups about the dangers of post-partum depression and shaken baby syndrome.
“I want to help raise awareness of the dangers of post-partum depression and shaken baby syndrome,” Lee said. “I’ve done the research and what happened to my son is far too common.”
In addition to these speaking engagements, Lee continues using the AJ Strong brand to inspire others and raise money for local families and nonprofit organizations in need. Recently, he created The AJ Strong Fund at the Chautauqua Region Community Foundation to provide annual support to the Child Advocacy Program.
The Child Advocacy Program provides supportive services to families who have experienced child abuse allegations or other traumatic situations. Some of the services offered include: advocacy, counseling, prevention education, and staff works in collaboration with Chautauqua County’s multi-disciplinary team to conduct forensic interviews and medical exams.
Following AJ’s accident, both Lee and his daughter, Avah, were touched by the caring and thoughtful guidance CAP provided them through their services.
“The Child Advocacy Program has been very near and dear to me and my family,” Lee said. “It’s important to me to make sure they have everything they need to be able to support children and families in the future.”
According to Beth Oakes, CAP executive director, child abuse is more common that people realize. This fund will help CAP continue to provide supportive services to families who have experienced child abuse allegations or other traumatic situations.
“We are grateful to Aaron, and his family, for setting up The AJ Strong Fund at the Community Foundation,” Oakes said. “Having support in the community helps CAP do what it sets out to do, which is to be present with a family while they go through the investigative and healing processes after a tragic event.”
As CAP continues expanding its services to meet the changing needs of children and families, Lee is confident that this fund will ensure AJ’s legacy remains a permanent part of the community.
“My hope with AJ Strong isn’t just about raising money,” Lee said. “I want to advocate and educate. It’s too late for me to help AJ, but if I can help the next person or child, that would mean a lot to me. I want people to know there is hope in tragedy.”
In addition to giving online, donations may also be mailed to the Community Foundation 418 Spring Street, Jamestown.