EAU CLAIRE — Mai Kou Lee squeezed the most out of a life cut too short.
That’s the consensus of those who knew the outgoing bilingual education assistant at North High School who died Feb. 25 at age 28 after a three-year battle with cancer.
Family, friends and colleagues agreed Lee’s life was a remarkable journey.
After being born in 1992 in the Chiang Kham refugee camp in Thailand, she resettled two years later with her family to the United States, first to Menomonie and then to Eau Claire. She graduated from North in 2011 and then from UW-Eau Claire in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Lee participated as a teen in Upward Bound, a program that helps first-generation and low-income high school students attend and complete college, and immediately began giving back by volunteering with the program during college and after graduating. It was through Upward Bound at UW-Eau Claire that she met Nou Kue Thao, who she married in 2017.
“She just wanted to make an impact on whoever she could touch. She wanted to help other students have the opportunity to go to college like she did,” Thao said. “She was a very happy person, very sociable and approachable. That’s what a lot of people liked about her.”
Shortly after getting married, Lee took her helping attitude back to North, where she worked with Hmong students and others who needed help with academics.
Her colleagues in the Eau Claire school district were deeply saddened by her death from mucoepidermoid carcinoma cancer, which was diagnosed after a small bump was discovered on her neck.
North English Language teacher Shino Iwashita said Lee was an excellent worker who immediately showed the ability to reach students.
“I think her natural thing was helping people, so the position was a perfect fit for her,” Iwashita said. “The students loved her. We loved her.”
Monica Pritchard, another English Language teacher at North, recalled that Lee’s caring attitude shone through even in her job interview.
“Losing Mai Kou Lee is devastating,” Pritchard said. “Mai Kou’s transition into our EL team here at North was flawless. After day one Shino and I looked at each other and knew Mai Kou was perfect for this position. She made instant connections with our students. They trusted her and responded to her encouragement.”
Brianna Smit, North’s English Language coordinator, agreed, saying Lee showed a great ability to work with students.
“The students just gravitated toward her,” Smit said. “She was so welcoming and so positive, but she also knew how to give them the extra motivation they needed to be the best they can be.”
To honor Lee and carry on her legacy, Smit is working with the Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation to create a a Mai Kou Lee Scholarship that will be available to North students pursuing postsecondary education.
Eau Claire school district community/district liaison Blia Schwahn, who has known the family since Lee was a young girl, also recalled her perpetually positive attitude. Schwahn called Lee “a kind and wonderful person” who seemed to always have a smile on her face.
But now the smiles are replaced by sadness, as those who knew Lee mourn her death.
“It’s just a sad overall situation,” Schwahn said. “She had so much potential and so much to live for, and now she’s taken away.”
Funeral services for Lee will be at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 14, at Chippewa Valley Cremation Services-Celebration of Life Center, 1717 Devney Drive, Altoona.