“My mom said chances are you will be to [sic] busy with more important things but there is a lot of people coming on these buses and even just a meeting from you or your wife would really lift peoples spirits,” Mari wrote. “Thank you for all that do for our country.”
They didn’t hear back, and their visit to Washington in March to bear witness to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder testifying before Congress about the Flint water crisis came and went.
Then Tuesday morning, a call came to the house from an unknown phone number. Loui “Lulu” Brezzell, Mari’s mom, almost didn’t pick up. The person on the other end said he was calling from the White House to let them know that Obama had read the letter. He was so touched by it that he was sending a personal response, and the official wanted to know if it was okay to make Mari’s letter public. Brezzell said it was.
The next day, the person called back to say the president’s response was emailed and an official copy on White House letterhead was on its way by regular mail. As Brezzell went to turn on her computer to read it, the White House aide said, “Oh, and one more thing. President Obama wants to come to Flint and meet your daughter.”
“My mind was blown,” Brezzell, 26, said in a phone interview Friday. “It was a surreal moment and it still feels surreal that he’s actually going to be here and he’s actually coming because of her. So many people have tried to get him here and here my 8-year-old was the one who finally got him to come.”
The details of the May 4 trip are still being worked out, but what is confirmed is that Mari is getting her face time with the president.
When Flint first started using its river as its water source, Brezzell’s youngest daughter, then only 2 years old, started getting rashes all over her body. They weren’t drinking the lead-ridden water, but they were still bathing and cooking with it. Then, even as Flint switched back to using water from the Detroit system last fall, the whole family started getting rashes that look like splotchy chemical burns. Brezzell said her entire body is covered in eczema-like patches.
The kids still take “speed showers,” and then Brezzell rinses them off with bottled water. If they want to take baths, she has to use 23 gallons of bottled water to fill the tub.
Mari, a precocious girl who competes in pageants and loves to dance (or “wiggle,” her signature move), said the worst part about the water crisis is not being able to take a bath or make Kool-Aid. She loves science and aspires to be Miss America. After her reign, she wants to become a police officer.
Brezzell went to Mari’s school to personally deliver the news about meeting Obama. Local media were there to capture Mari’s reaction. As her mom read her Obama’s letter, Mari sat stunned, her hand over her mouth, and then she threw her arms around Brezzell’s neck.
Mari said Friday that she’s excited but that she always thought there was a chance Obama would come through. She intends to tell the president that the water is bad and that “people are dying because there is lead and poison in it,” she said, probably all while wearing her pageant crown and sash.
“I love him,” she added. “He’s nice and he’s not mean like some other presidents are.”
Brezzell said she’s tried to instill an altruistic spirit in her children at a young age. Mari used to go with her grandmother to food banks to pass out meals. Around the holidays, Brezzell and the children build “blessing boxes” filled with food and toiletries. Then she posts on Facebook asking if anyone knows someone in need of a blessing. On many weekends, they volunteer distributing water bottles in the community.
“I’ve always taught her it’s better to give back and speak out,” Brezzell said. “We might not be the most rich people in the world, but we aren’t struggling. If we’re not struggling I hate to see other people struggling.”
She’s also taught Mari to find the light in even the most dire situations. While she would of course trade meeting Obama — and the numerous other celebrities who have passed through Flint — to never have tap water that terrorized her skin, she said, she’s used those bright spots as a teaching opportunity.
“Even in bad situations something good will always come out of it,” Brezzell said. “That’s how we’ve tried to face this water crisis.”