D.C. Students Among Guests in Obama Box

By Elissa Silverman and Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 25, 2009 9:45 AM

Three high school students from the District who had met first lady Michelle Obama when she visited their after-school program were invited to join her last night at the president's speech.

Elizabeth Carballo, Akrem Muzemil and Juan Francisco Rodriguez had all asked questions of the first lady Feb. 10 when she visited Mary's Center, a nonprofit organization in the District.

All three public high school students come from modest backgrounds, said Maria Gomez, president and chief executive of the nonprofit group, and all are serious about their goals.

And, Gomez said, all three, in their Sunday best, were filled with excitement last night along with a sense of, "Wow, this can't be happening to me!"

Also invited to the first lady's box in the balcony of the House chamber was Howard University senior Victoria Kirby. "It was definitely a humbling experience and a wonderful opportunity," she said afterward.

It is traditional at addresses such as last night's for the first lady's guests to represent deeds and values that the president wishes to honor and endorse.

Guests included members of the military, such as Marine Sgt. John E. Rice of Bethesda, a wounded Iraq veteran; Alvaro Simmons of Mary's Center and two other Washington nonprofit leaders, Roxanna Garcia Marcus and Gen. Alfonso E. Lenhardt; Mary Henley, a 78-year-old office cleaner from Richmond; a police officer from Philadelphia; and Abbey Meacham, a paramedic and firefighter in Lynchburg, Va.

Invitee Lilly Ledbetter of Jacksonville, Ala., filed a lawsuit for equal pay that led to a bill recently signed by the president.

Near the end of his address, the president singled out two of the invited guests by name: One, Leonard Abess Jr., a Miami banker, quietly shared with hundreds of present and former bank employees $60 million in proceeds from his sale of bank stock, according to the White House.

The other, Ty'Sheoma Bethea, a high school junior from Dillon, S.C., wrote to Congress asking help for her aged and deteriorating school building. In words repeated last night by Obama the letter said in part: "We are not quitters."

Gomez said Carballo, a junior at Roosevelt Senior High, wants to be a social worker; Muzemil, a sophomore at Banneker Academic High, is interested in engineering; and Rodriguez, a sophomore at Bell Multicultural High, likes to repair cars.

They could not be reached immediately. Muzemil's principal, Anita Berger, called him "a lovely young man who takes academics seriously and has a passion for soccer."

"I am happy," his father, Abrar, said last night. The invitation was "a very good opportunity for him and all the family."

At Howard, Kirby is to receive a bachelor's degree in communications and culture. She is a student member of Howard's board of trustees.

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