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The ‘Grandmother of Juneteenth’ has a message of kindness: ‘Help somebody else’

Lee, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist and leader, fought for years to have Juneteenth recognized as a federal holiday.

Civil rights activist Opal Lee has one piece of advice on how to celebrate Juneteenth: help someone else.

Known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth,” Lee appeared during a pre-taped segment of TODAY with Hoda & Jenna that aired on Monday. She was joined by her granddaughter Dione Sims, the founding executive director of the National Juneteenth Museum.

When asked by Hoda Kotb how individuals should spend Juneteenth, which was officially established as a federal holiday last year, the 95-year-old shared her words of wisdom.

“I think they should spend this special day helping somebody else,” she said. “I find that when I help somebody else, all my problems seem to disappear. I don’t want you to think that they go into thin air, but when I’m helping somebody else, I get help for myself, too."

Much of Lee's life has been dedicated to service and helping others not only in her community but across the nation. In addition to her work campaigning to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday, Lee is a former schoolteacher who ensured that her students had all of their necessities, including shoes, clothes and food.

After retiring, Lee continued to serve her community, leading what is now known as the Community Food Bank, which helps more than 600 members of the community access food, household supplies and pet food. She is also the namesake of Opal’s Farm, an urban farm in Fort Worth, Texas, that is expected to feed 25,000 people this season.

Sims has continued the tradition of her grandmother's dedication to service and giving back. When Jenna Bush Hager asked what she has learned from Lee over the years, Sims replied: “I’ve learned from her that you give of yourself, sometimes maybe even to your own hurt, but it’s always in betterment of somebody else.

“And in sowing those seeds, you’ll always reap a return on the time and the treasure and the talent that you sow into somebody else."

Juneteenth, which takes place each year on June 19, is a holiday that marks the official end of slavery in the United States. On June 19, 1865, two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, informing the enslaved people of the city that they were free. 

Lee, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated activist and leader, has spent decades fighting for Juneteenth to be recognized as a national holiday. When she was 89 years old, she walked 1,400 miles from Fort Worth to Washington, D.C., to bring awareness to the holiday. 

Five years later, she saw her mission come true, standing by President Joe Biden’s side as he signed a bill that was unanimously passed by the Senate that would recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday.

Ahead of Biden’s signing, Lee told TODAY: “I’m telling you, I’ll probably do a holy dance. I just don’t know how to describe it. I just feel like it’s the beginning of something great, and I want to be a part of it."