Tharesa Lee Serves as a Source of Inspiration as She Presses On

Tharesa Lee Serves as a Source of Inspiration as She Presses On

February 28, 2022
Rhonda Jessup, Public Affairs Director

 MOUNT OLIVE –Tharesa Chadwick Lee is no stranger to adversity and heartache.  But, to hear her talk, you would never know the challenges she has faced or the obstacles she has overcome.  Ever the optimist, the 64 year old New Bern resident said, “I love the life that I have been given.  I was placed here for the sake of others; to serve, love, and care, and I am blessed beyond measure.”

Lee uses the life experiences and challenges that have been thrust in her path to build and empower others.  It is a skill she learned from her grandmother.

Lee was just three years old when her father was killed in an automobile accident.  Torn by the tragedy, Lee’s mother, who was just 24 at the time, moved Lee and her three siblings, all of whom were under the age of six, from their home in Belgrade, NC to Pollocksville, NC.

“My grandmother, my father’s mother, sent for us often, and we spent summers with her,” Lee remembers.  “My grandmother worked hard at home, at church, and at Camp Lejeune, where she cleaned barracks.”

Lee recalls that there was always something to do at her grandmother’s house.  “We got up early and worked in the garden, shelled peas, picked sweet potatoes from the haystack, and whatever else that needed to be done.”

For Lee, laboring side-by-side with her grandmother really didn’t seem like work. “Everyone on the two mile road was kin to us,” Lee said.  “So, love, care, and compassion were not absent.”

Lee felt insulated from much of the outside world.  “But,” she said, “There were things that we saw that did shape our lives.”

Poverty was one of those things.  “I did not understand poverty growing up at my grandmother’s, because she had a lot of fortitude, perseverance, diligence, and commitment. At my mother’s house, on the other hand, I understood what poverty was.”

Missed field trips because money was too tight, having to ride with neighbors to afterschool events because her mom was working, and living in a home that required constant maintenance, were some of the things that clued Lee into her family’s financial status.  “However, I never looked at us as being poor,” she said. “Because we were rich in family.”

Another life shaping event occurred for Lee when she was in her sophomore year of high school.  For no explained reason, Lee lost her voice.  “No one knew what to do, what to say, or if I would ever speak again,” Lee recalled. “I still don’t know if it was physical or psychological,” she added.

Several area churches took up a collection to send Lee to a doctor in Chapel Hill.  After about six months of treatment, Lee regained her voice.  However, during stressful times, Lee’s voice would mysteriously come and go, even into her early adult life.

During her junior and senior year of high school, Lee joined the track and cheerleading teams.  She thrived as an athlete.  However, after graduation, she felt she had no options for furthering her education.  “Just an average student, no one expected me to go anywhere,” she said.   “So, I didn’t.”

For about a year and a half, Lee’s life was in flux.  Then, a friend encouraged her to enroll at Coastal Carolina Community College.  In 1970, at the age of 21, Lee earned her associate’s degree.  It was the beginning of her lifelong love of learning. However, work obligations, family responsibilities, and church priorities took precedence in Lee’s life.  Then one day, “That still small voice of God told me it was time to get my four-year college degree,” Lee recalls.

Lee was 41 years old when she enrolled at, what was then, Mount Olive College in New Bern.  She started in the business program, but soon switched her major to religion.  She wanted to be more knowledgeable in Christian ministries so she could better assist her husband in their work with Living Word Worship Center in New Bern.  In 2001, at the age of 43, with five young children, a husband, and a full time job with the City of New Bern, Lee crossed the stage and received her college diploma.

“My life was truly transformed,” Lee said of obtaining her degree.  “Everyone that knew me saw the transformation.  Earning that piece of paper gave me discipline and prepared me to help transform others.”

Since earning her degree, Lee has helped shape the lives of many. Working with the City of New Bern, Lee was promoted four times in her 24 and half year career.  Since retiring in 2013, she has focused much of her attention to serving more than 30 nonprofits.  Included in that list, for many years, Lee has led the City of New Bern through 21 days of prayer while serving as Greater New Bern National Day of Prayer Coordinator.  In 2021, her initiatives lead to being commissioned as the NC National Day of Prayer State Coordinator.  In addition, the combined efforts of her volunteerism has resulted in Lee earning the national Jefferson Award for Public Service in 2019.

When asked about her years of community service, leadership and advocacy, Lee said, “If I believe in your mission, if it is in line with my convictions, if it will help others live a better quality of life, then you can count me in.”

Many call Lee a nonprofit guru. “I say I am a nonprofit advocate,” she smiled.

Lee is motivated by her faith in Christ Jesus, by the need to build and empower others, by her family, and, she said, “By the possibility that all things are possible.”  But, she will always credit her first source of inspiration as coming from her grandmother.  “She taught me how to work hard, sit like a lady, rise early, finish the course, and never give up.”

Lee also often uses a quote by Shirley Chisholm, as a guiding principle for her life.  “If they don’t give you a place at the table, bring your own folding chair,” she recites.

Among her many accolades and accomplishments, Lee is the first African American Board Chair for the New Bern Chamber of Commerce, where she works through their Nonprofit Council to help organizations maximize their impact.

“I didn’t know I was the first until the night I took office,” she shared.  “Someone reached over and told me right before I took the gavel.”  Lee had been too busy preparing mentally and spiritually for her new role.

In addition to her community service work, Lee owns her own consulting business, which she appropriately named “Intentional Excellence.”  The mission of her business reads, “Inspired speaker, innovative consensus builder, strategic community outreach czar, mentor, instructor, author, facilitator and social entrepreneur seeking the opportunity to encourage, enlighten, and enliven people into action.”  It is an accurate description of a woman that puts service before self.

Lee is often heard telling people that giving up is not an option.  “I tell them some of my challenges and difficulties, as well as my victories,” she said. “I share with them that, despite the challenges that life throws in your path, whether that is sicknesses, miscarriages, or other situations, you just have to press on.  My grandmother pressed on, my aunts pressed on, my mother pressed on, and so, too, I must press on.”

Lee and her husband, Pastor Jimmie C. Lee, have been married for 37 years.  They attend Saint John Missionary Baptist Church in New Bern where they both serve as assistant pastors. The couple has 6 children, 11 grandchildren, and 2 great grandchildren.

The University of Mount Olive is a private institution rooted in the liberal arts tradition with defining Christian values. The University is sponsored by the Convention of Original Free Will Baptists.  For more information, visit