Michelle Obama praises educators’, community leaders’ contributions

First lady First lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Miami’s Freedom Tower on Thursday was not just historic ? it was a call to action.

She hoped her message will galvanize a new generation of young people to invest in their future by committing to their schools and communities.

Her speech also was an appreciation for all the educators and community leaders who work long hours ? often struggling amid budget cuts, layoffs and low pay ? dedicating their lives to teaching students to empathize with those less fortunate.

And above all, it was a lesson to be taught: that life is more than just having money, big homes and fancy cars. The rewards of volunteerism far outweigh the trappings of corporate success.

“The lesson is pretty clear,” she told the audience of more than 500 dignitaries, educators, students and business and government leaders attending the $250-a-plate luncheon.

“Each of us has a role to play and all of us have something to offer. No matter where you come from or what you do for a living, you can make a difference in someone’s life. And in doing so, you can make a difference in your own life.”

Obama ? the first first lady to visit the landmark tower ? has shaped an agenda that reflects her support of community causes and public education.

It’s a subject that’s near and dear to English professor Renee Kilpatrick’s heart. She attended segregated schools in the 1960s.

“Finally, when you look at Michelle Obama, little black girls will see that we are good enough, we are pretty enough and we are intelligent enough. … We can see the possibilities of what can be,” said Kilpatrick, a faculty member at Miami Dade College, which sponsored the fundraiser.

The proceeds benefit the Florida Campus Compact, an organization of more than 50 college and university presidents that supports student civic engagement.

The first lady’s flashing motorcade arrived about 11 a.m., snaking along the side of the building, just as tossed salad with tomatoes and mozzarella was served to the clatter of forks and the chatter of guests dressed in their Sunday best.

Vases of lavender wild orchids filled centerpieces on the 50 tables, seating 10 each. Each guest was given a gift bag with a silver and black portable coffee cup.

But the highlight was seeing the first lady, whose entrance to the hall shortly before her 12:30 speech electrified the audience as if they were in the presence of American royalty.

Lydia Woods, a 23-year-old MDC pre-med student, won the coveted honor of sitting next to Obama at one of the front tables.

“She was wonderful,” said Wood. “She told me that she wished her daughters would grow up to be like me, and I said ‘Whaaaat!’ She was very young-looking and pretty up close.”

Obama, clad in a lavender brocade sweater and knee-length floral dress, warmly greeted guests, as well as the waiters and waitresses who nervously waited on her.

“She is a real people person; she was very real,” said Rosalie Gordon, who served her a plate with samples of the two main courses on the menu: herb-grilled chicken and salmon with a lemon caper sauce.

Obama talked about starting her career working at a big Chicago law firm, where she earned more money than both her parents combined.

She soon decided she wanted to do more than spend time in a sprawling law office, so she walked away from her lucrative corporate career in hopes of making a difference.

“When I decided to leave for a public service job, let me tell you, my family and my friends started to question my sanity,” she said, as the audience chuckled.

She launched a myriad of public service programs, worked with visionary young people and helped found a Chicago program grooming 18- to 30-year olds for community service jobs.

“I knew I was making an impact on the community that raised me. I knew I was helping to change people’s lives in ways I couldn’t sitting behind a fancy desk,” she said.

In his welcoming remarks, Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron called the visit of historical significance for the college.

“The fact that we got her here is a real success for the college,” said Padron. “We thought she was perfect for this event because of her commitment to community service.”

Earlier this week, Padron was at the White House celebration of Hispanic culture and heritage, Fiesta Latina.

“I was truly amazed how well President Obama and Mrs. Obama can dance salsa,” he said. “They do it so well they could win any salsa contest here in Miami.”

To which Michelle Obama quipped, “I might be able to.”

(c) 2009, The Miami Herald. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.