NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The first lady of Tennessee, Maria Lee, is passionate about giving back and her initiative, Tennessee Serves, is the heart of everything she does.

But her main priority is a role she’s been in for almost 15 years.

“Yeah. So “I feel like first and foremost, the biggest role that I play as first lady is really as Bill’s wife, and supporting him and what he is doing. So for me, that’s kind of my main focus. So whenever I can, I’m out, traveling the state with him or going on a on a business trip somewhere with him,” explained Lee.

She knew this would be part of the job when the governor first told her he wanted to run for office over a game of Yahtzee.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘I think I’m supposed to run.’ So we just kind of stopped the game and talked about it. That was our prior first serious talk about like, ‘OK, what’s this gonna look like?’ And he said, you know, are you up for this, because he knows, I’m not somebody that wants to be in the spotlight and would much rather be behind the scenes doing things,” said Lee.

However, it was a natural fit for them, teaming up on a campaign run just as they had in other parts of life.

Though the outside noise, the criticism, has been harder to navigate for her.

“In the beginning, it was kind of like, Where’s this coming from? And, you know, gosh, and for somebody that didn’t usually have darts thrown at them, it’s kind of like, oh, and it’s kind of shocking. I think he has learned to brush them off. I still take them on. And, and in that I just have to give it over to the Lord knowing and trusting that he’s called us here,” recalled Lee.

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“And if you do what you feel like you’re called to do, and you feel like you’re making the best decisions, that in your heart, you feel are for the best for people in the state, then you just have to walk confidently in that knowing.”

Tennessee Serves

When Lee first stepped into the role for first lady four years ago, she knew she wanted to take on an initiative. There was no doubt about what that would be, it was something she was already deeply passionate about: serving. What she didn’t know is what exactly that would look like.

“The problem for me was trying to figure out where do I serve? And who do I serve? And how do I serve in trying to narrow it down to just one group of people to serve was, just didn’t feel right. And so, in 2019, my team and I launched what we call Tennessee Serves, and we focus on a variety of groups and a variety of needs to meet. And so every month, we have a monthly challenge, where we might focus on first responders or senior citizens or the homeless or foster children,” said Lee.

Tennessee Serves puts out the call on social media for how people can join the challenge with organizations in their area. The idea is a big part of what the Lee believe in.

“Bill says a lot that government is not the answer to our greatest challenges, but the people are and so when people get engaged in their own community, and with nonprofits in their own community, it changes their community, and makes people’s lives better,” said Lee.

And that’s where it clicked that together, the first couple can make an even bigger impact.

“Bill’s administration, in the very beginning, had focused a lot on communities because he grew up in rural Tennessee, his heart is for rural Tennessee,” explained Lee. “And that’s where mainly the distressed counties are rural. And so he has really put an emphasis on that and had all departments focus and create policies to move that economic needle in those distressed counties.”

Then, the first lady’s team steps in to support that effort.

“I feel like the administration has a bird’s eye view, the big picture, and the policies that they can put in place to help sustain these communities long term. I feel like my team kind of comes in more on a personal eye level and a human level, to be able to physically be there and in touch the people and interact with them and let them know that they are not forgotten that they are seen and that they are cared for,” said Lee.

The proof is there: in 2019 there were 15 distressed counties in the state. Now, only 10 are considered distressed.

There have been 195 service projects so far, but there are some that stick out in Lee’s mind and they typically involve.

“It’s so rewarding and encouraging to see every year those kids sending in pictures and responding with a journal saying this was my favorite thing, you know, I loved making a lemonade stand to raise money for somebody who’d never had a birthday party, and just different ways that they come up with on their own.”

Surviving cancer

But this last year has been a whirlwind for Lee with every emotion you could imagine beginning with her cancer diagnosis in August of 2022.

“Strangely, it just was like, ‘oh, OK, ‘it was almost just like matter of fact. But looking ahead, I think them had the I had a wonderful medical team of doctors and nurses that did a great job.”

Lee was diagnosed with a very rare cancer that is treatable, but not curable.

“So I went through six rounds of treatment over about a 21 week period, and then a stem cell transplant in February, just to kind of lock in every possible, you know, effort that we could do to, to get rid of this cancer,” explained Lee.

In March of this year, she officially went into remission.

“I think I am still processing it all. I feel like, you know that the Lord has given me a greater sense of faith, and trust in him through it all,” said Lee.

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Her very public battle with cancer was met with an outpouring of support that she said helped her fight.

“I can’t even count the number of cards and notes that were sent our way. And people said they were praying for me, praying for Bill writing encouraging things, sending well wishes, sending gifts and people who I don’t even know, taking the time to write something,” said Lee.

However, above it all was her faith, which has only been strengthened.

“Having a faith that knows that no matter what God’s got in mind, and I can trust Him and set my hope in Him. And that gave us a lot of peace, honestly. And then, you know, in His mercy and kindness, the treatments that I started, worked almost immediately, and my body just responded to them,” explained Lee.

Her hope in all of this is that something good will come from her fight.

“I just hope that through my experience somewhere along the way, someone else might be encouraged and that they might even turn to the Lord and and cry out for mercy and it chokes me up because I don’t you know, I can’t explain why He answered all those prayers favorably on my behalf. But He did.”