Daisy Lee is not certified to drive a Mack Truck.
“No, I’m not,” Lee laughed after describing the certifications she has received.
When Lee first became a teacher at Krueger Middle School in Michigan City, she worked on an emergency permit until she was able to earn her teaching certification.
Lee is a Zumba instructor at the Michigan City YMCA. She fell in love with Zumba when her friend invited her to a class, and after attending almost every day, eventually went on to earn her certificate for that, too.
Lee received her SCUBA certification when she visited Greece, and enjoyed taking her teenage nieces for their first dives in the Cayman Islands over Christmas.
She’s also done a few controlled burns as a wildland firefighter, which she describes as “fun.”
“I am very passionate about a lot of different things,” Lee said, “and I’m very perceptive, so if I see a need I do what I can to help. I care a lot about other people, so I try to make their lives better.”
Lee has put action to that passion to help here in Michigan City and abroad. Locally she teaches seventh and eighth-grade environmental science and coaches eighth-grade volleyball, and Lee lived in a forest preserve in Panama for two years where she served in the Peace Corps.
“I love Latin America,” Lee said, describing her favorite places to travel.
In Panama, Lee learned to live well off the grid. There was no electricity, no running water, and she had to take a horse to get around because no car could reach her location.
“It really opened my mind and my eyes,” she said of the lifestyle, adding that her time in the Peace Corp gave her the opportunity to learn Spanish.
Her language skills took her to Colombia, where she fell in love with the people, their culture and their environment.
“Colombia is my favorite place I’ve been. It’s gorgeous and the people are just wonderful and warm. The music, the food, the nature – it’s everything,” Lee said. “I went there once and I fell in love with it. Went back another time and thought it was even better.”
Lee, who’s traveled to 25 countries so far, counts Turkey as her second favorite destination.
Attentive to student needs, Lee serves as a National Program Chair for Michigan City Children’s International Summer Villages (CISV), a global peace program for students. She took a group of those students to Tukey.
“It’s also gorgeous and people are just so nice. We were there during Ramadan, and it was a really cool experience to see the culture as a whole city in Istanbul. There’s a large tower with the light on it, and you know when the light turns on you can break fast. People would gather in these parks and break fast together. Everybody would bring their own picnics,” Lee said. “This guy would walk around with bells and yell “wake up” at 3 a.m., so people could wake up before sunrise to eat and shower and go back to bed.”
Last year’s trip was to Poland, where the students were able to visit Auschwitz.
“It was intense,” Lee said, “but I was glad we got to be there.”
Lee’s jet-setting volunteerism took off after she graduated from Purdue University Northwest with a degree in Natural Sciences and Ecology.
Her first job out of school was teaching environmental education at the Dunes Learning Center.
“It was one of my favorite jobs ever,” Lee said about taking students on hikes and orchestrating hands-on learning projects similar to those she would later take into her classroom at Kreuger.
She went on to teach science at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, eventually left for Panama serving in the Peace Corps for two years, and then took a year off to travel and volunteer.
Her passion for the environment and volunteerism has made a huge impact at Kreuger, where she has established various give-back organizations.
Lee leads Club Spectrum, the diversity club at the middle school. She wanted to create a safe space for anybody, no matter their differences. Students are invited to talk about the issues they face, and the focus is on exploring, discussing, and learning about different inequalities locally, nationally and globally.
As a long-time ally and supporter of the LGBTQ+ community, Lee volunteered with Michigan City’s PFLAG and helped develop the Pride Fest three years ago. It’s a great opportunity for her Club Spectrum students to be involved and learn about that part of their community as well.
Lee leads many recycling programs at Kreuger, like the Care Closet that she started last year. By partnering with Changing Footprints, students are able to donate shoes that either become new shoes for students in need or recycled through Nike Grind into playground turf.
“We have over 800 pairs of shoes,” Lee said. “Any staff in the district can fill out the Google form and they tell me the size and type and I find a pair of shoes and send them through the school mail.”
Lee’s award-winning programs also earn money for her school.
Kreuger came in ninth place in the nation in the PepsiCo Recycle Rally, earning $10,000 for the school. She’s pushing even harder this year because each spot increase earns another $5,000.
“We partner with different businesses and organizations in the area to help reach out goals,” Lee said. “It helps by not only increasing the amount recycled, but also by getting the whole community involved and thinking about recycling.”
Lee and her programs have won several environmental stewardship and conservation awards, including the Green Award from R.O.S.E. (Recognition of Service Excellence) last year.
Beyond the prize for placement, the PepsiCo program also awards points that can be exchanged for recycling or composting bins.
Lee is a big proponent of composting, and it’s really catching on.
With more than 100 acres of land, Kreuger’s cafeteria composting program has successfully reduced the amount of waste delivered to the landfill. Now, Lee is working with people outside Kreuger to expand composting throughout the community.
The Sierra Club’s Ashley Williams volunteers with a soup kitchen and has started bringing their compostable waste to the heaps deep in the forest at Kreuger.
Lee is also working with Sacha Burns, education coordinator from the Solid Waste District, to start a community-wide composting area by the district’s building near the fairgrounds.
Through her service to the Michigan City Sustainability Committee on the Waste Reduction subcommittee, Lee is working with Burns to offer classes throughout the year.
“I think people are interested,” Lee said, “and we can help them get started.”
One interested party is Mary Koselke, who teaches culinary arts at the A.K. Smith Career Center.
“I met her at a professional development workshop a couple months ago,” Lee said. “She said she’s interested in worm composting, and I got her bins for free so she can do that there at A.K. Smith Career Center.”
This is the essence of Lee’s approach to living each day, and packing her schedule to the absolute fullest: to identify a need, explore the opportunity, develop a solution, and pass the baton.
“This past semester was a lot of work,” Lee said, admitting that she does an awful lot, “so I’ve been able to pass the baton so I can pick the things I need to focus on.”
From environmental education to international experiences, Lee appreciates the opportunities her job gives her to combine all her passions and improve her community.
“I never thought I would be a middle school teacher,” Lee said, “but I love it! I love science and the environment. I love promoting diversity and kindness. I love volleyball. I can take all those things and put them together.”
Lee is not a lecture person. Which is great for her students, because a lot of students aren’t interested in lectures, either. Her elective environmental science course gives students hands-on opportunities to learn about science and experience it in the real world.
“That’s another thing I love,” Lee said. “We go to the river and look for bugs, we do chemistry water quality tests, we go to the landfill for a field trip and build solar power race cars and windmills. Then, the students can walk right into the AP class when they get to high school.”
Lee recognizes that she has been both fortunate and privileged to have so many opportunities, and credits the support of her loved ones.
“If it wasn't for all of these people, none of this could have ever happened,” Lee said. “If it wasn't for the amazing help and support that I have received from my family, friends, co-workers, and the community.”
“The combination between that and my passion for so many different things has led me to be able to take what I love and mix it with the things that I am good at and help create positive change.”
Yet and still, at the end of the day, Lee is not certified to drive a Mack Truck.