Away from the clamor of protesters and the glitter of a city dressed up for the NATO summit, first lady Michelle Obama and the spouses of foreign heads of state spent Sunday afternoon on the South Side, less than a mile from the neighborhood where she grew up.
They dined on salad made with Tuscan kale and chives from a rooftop garden at the Gary Comer Youth Center. Culinary students helped Chicago chef Paul Kahan prepare the main course -- walleye and braised oxtail -- served on a table adorned with a flower arrangement that included marigolds grown by the center's "green team."
Any other day, the airy room with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the gymnasium and the auditorium would be a typical cafeteria, filled with the chatter of young people having lunch. But Sunday, it was transformed into an elegant dining room with the trimmings of an official White House luncheon.
It was a great opportunity for the young people growing up in Greater Grand Crossing, a low-income community where most of the public schools are low-performing and fewer than half of the students graduate from high school. And the students, realizing that the world was watching, reveled in the attention.
"This is a wonderful, excellent experience," said Airrishaun Sykes, 17, a student at King College Prep High School and a part of the Comer Center's culinary program. He stopped cutting strawberries for the students' signature strawberry basil vinaigrette dressing to speak with the first lady.
"She asked what I'd like to do, and I told her I'd like to be an entrepreneur in the community," Sykes said. "There are not a lot of situations where you get to meet Michelle Obama. I will definitely put this on my resume."
The center, funded by the late Lands' End founder Gary Comer as a place where children could receive support to help them graduate from high school and go on to college, is well-known to Obama. She said she brought the first ladies of Croatia, Turkey, Norway, Albania and France, as well as the wife of the NATO secretary general to her hometown and "my backyard" so the world could see the amazing work being done there.
As she often does in her speeches, Obama spoke fondly of her South Side roots. Though the neighborhood has declined since her youth, she told the young people that she grew up just like them, with the same background.
Her family did not have a lot of money, she said. Their apartment was so small that it was difficult to study when the family was up, so often she would awake at 4:30 a.m. to do her schoolwork. Neither her parents nor most of the people in her neighborhood had the opportunity to go to college, and there were some well-meaning though misguided people who questioned whether someone with her background could get into colleges like Princeton University, where she went on to earn a degree.
Sometimes, she said, she doubted herself.
"But I decided to just focus, to push the haters out, to kick the doubters out of my head," she said. "And instead, what I did was I worked really hard. I focused all my energy -- on working hard."
She told the students that they could have the same success by taking advantage of education opportunities and participating in programs offered at Comer.
After a tour of the center's rooftop garden and cooking demonstrations, the guests were entertained by the South Shore Dance Drill Team, the Soul Children of Chicago and the Muntu Dance Theatre. The groups performed a variety of acts, including hip-hop, African dance, drumming and tunes by Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson.
In keeping with the first lady's "Let's Move" initiative, young people also showed the guests how they add fun to their workouts, performing hip-hop aerobics to the Jacksons' upbeat song "Can You Feel It."
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