"I know this is probably an odd request but I would love for a chance to meet you or your wife," Mari wrote. "My mom said chances are you will be too 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 people’s spirits."
Obama responded in a letter Monday, which the White House posted Wednesday on the site Medium. He noted that she was "right that Presidents are often busy, but the truth is, in America, no title is more important than citizen."
"I want to make sure people like you and your family are receiving the help you need and deserve," the president wrote, adding he wanted her to be "the first to know" that he's coming to her city on May 4. "Like you, I'll use my voice to call for change and help lift up your community."
In an interview Wednesday Copeny's mother, LuLu Brezzell, said her daughter was "a little overwhelmed" at the prospect of meeting the president, but "hasn't stopped smiling" since they received a call from the White House this week that he'd be coming.
“We’ve always taught her to stand up for what she believes in and to use her voice, ” said Brezzell, who said she asked her daughter if she wanted to write to Obama while they were traveling to Washington last month to attend a hearing on Capitol Hill about the Flint water crisis.
Flint's water contamination became a major issue in the presidential race around Michigan's primary, as Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders cited it as a sign of Republican politicians' indifference to those who are poor and African American, while Republicans said Obama administration officials bore part of the blame for the problem. An ongoing state probe has faulted Michigan officials for making the key decisions that have exposed thousands of children in the community to dangerously high lead levels that can cause permanent neurological problems.
For decades, Flint had purchased its water from Detroit. It came from Lake Huron, with anti-corrosion chemicals added along the way. But as the once-thriving, now-struggling industrial city sought ways to trim its budget under the watch of an emergency manager appointed by the state, officials in 2014 switched the city’s water source to the Flint River.
State officials, however, fatefully failed to ensure the addition of chemicals intended to control the corrosion of pipes and prevent lead and other contaminants from leaching into the water. Eventually, more than 95,000 residents in the troubled city — including about 9,000 children under age 6 — were exposed to water tainted with lead and other potential contaminants.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the trip aims to "demonstrate that while the public discussion of this situation doesn't retain the same spot in the limelight, the administration is committed to following through on helping that community recover."
"Now, we would certainly welcome a greater commitment, or frankly, any commitment from Republicans in Congress ... in responding to this situation," he added. "The administration has marshaled significant resources to help that community respond."
Obama will not just be conveying his support for the community in Flint, Earnest said, but "making a broader argument to the country about why investments in our infrastructure are so critically important."
Many people in Flint were disappointed when Obama did not visit the city when he attended the Detroit Auto Show, which is barely an hour away, in January. Brezzell said in addition to being proud of her daughter, she hopes the president’s upcoming visit can begin to heal the anger and distrust of government that are so prevalent in the beleaguered city.
“People here tend to feel like they’ve been forgotten, like our lives don’t matter to the people in government -- to the people in power – because so little has been done to fix the actual problem,” she said. “With him coming here, it will give people the idea that he does care, that the Commander-in-Chief does care about the lives of people here.”
Last month, a task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) to investigate the water crisis in Flint issued a blistering report, largely blaming state officials in what it called “a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”
The report said the state Environmental Quality Department “failed in its fundamental responsibility” to enforce drinking-water regulations, even as it assured top state that Flint’s water was safe when it wasn’t. It faulted Snyder and his administration for failing to act even after senior staff members raised the issue.
It said Flint’s water department “rushed unprepared” into switching to a new water source in 2014. And it blamed the Environmental Protection Agency’s delayed enforcement of federal drinking-water standards for “prolonging the calamity.”
Last week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced criminal charges against three government employees for their role in the ongoing water crisis in Flint. The charges include more than a dozen separate counts — including tampering with evidence and misconduct in office — against two officials at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, as well as a Flint water quality supervisor.
“These charges are only the beginning, and there will be more to come,” Schuette said at the time.