Tennessee First Lady Maria Lee poses for a photo with Renea Jones-Rogers during Lee’s visit to Rocky Fork State Park on Monday, Sept. 9. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Richard Rourk)

By Richard Rourk

Maria Lee, the first lady of Tennessee, was in Unicoi County on Monday, Sept. 9, to help volunteer during a stream cleanup day at Rocky Fork State Park.

Lee was in the Valley Beautiful promoting her Tennessee Serves initiative, which encourages Tennesseans to serve one another and volunteer in their communities with a special focus on distressed counties.

“It is basically a three-part program that is us serving by example, highlighting nonprofits and organizations that are serving their communities and hopefully mobilizing others to get out and help as well,” Lee said.

Through Tennessee Serves, Lee also issues monthly service challenges to motivate Tennesseans to serve in various ways. This month, Tennessee State Parks partnered with Lee to host Tennessee Serves volunteer events in parks across the state.

“Last month’s challenge was focused on seniors,” Lee said. “This month is focused on Tennessee State Parks by helping keep them clean and beautifying them, especially as the weather changes and more are frequenting the parks more often.”

Lee is adamant about serving the community.

“Serving in general is important to me; it’s better to give than receive,” Lee said. “Preserving the ecosystems here at Rocky Fork, beautifying and keeping the waterways clean, it just makes a great spot for people to come and enjoy.”

The Friends of Rocky Fork State Park were on hand to support the volunteers.

“We have some water, bagged lunches and light snacks and we are just taking care of people’s needs,” Friends of Rocky Fork State Park member and Unicoi County Commissioner Marie Rice said. “We try to help out the park and the rangers anyway we can.”

According to Rocky Fork State Park Manager Jesse Germeraad, there was roughly two dozen people assisting in the cleanup.

“Counting First Lady Lee, we had between 20-25 volunteers helping in the cleanup today,” Germeraad said.

Following the day of cleanup at Rocky Fork State Park, Lee then traveled to Newport to serve at Empower Cocke County, a local nonprofit that facilitates positive life change through faith- based skill-building and workforce development training, before heading back home to Nashville.