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Girls Inc. volunteers dine with Michelle Obama and 25 other 'Remarkable Women'

April 13, 2011|By JANET HEIM | janeth@herald-mail.com
  • Girls Inc. of Washington County alumna Latonya Howard and Charnell Mercer of South Hagerstown High School, Brianna Burnett and Chesney Randall of North Hagerstown High and Christina Thompson of Barbara Ingram School for the Arts dined with Michelle Obama at the White House.
Submitted photo

March 30, 2011, is a date five Hagerstown teenagers probably will not forget. On that day, they visited the White House and had dinner with first lady Michelle Obama and 25 other women.

The "Remarkable Women" dinner was held to celebrate Women's History Month and recognize the importance of role models.

Michelle Obama is the honorary chairwoman of Girls Inc.

The evening came about after the White House contacted the Girls Inc. advocacy office in Washington, D.C., which then got in touch with Maureen Grove, executive director of Girls Inc. of Washington County.

Grove said she learned of the event through a phone call on Monday evening, March 28, while attending one of her children's soccer games. The call was an invitation for five high school girls to attend the dinner that Wednesday at the White House.

Grove immediately contacted girls who still volunteer and help mentor others. Girls Inc. of Washington County alumna Latonya Howard and Charnell Mercer of South Hagerstown High School, Brianna Burnett and Chesney Randall of North Hagerstown High and Christina Thompson of Barbara Ingram School for the Arts received and accepted the invitation.

After clearing security, the girls toured some of the public rooms of the White House, then joined about 115 other high school girls in the East Room for the dinner.  The event paired girls from Washington, D.C., area high schools and Girls Inc. of Washington County.

Christina Thompson said she had always wanted to visit the White House, but never expected to be invited to a dinner there. Christina, who is studying viola, said she was in a pit rehearsal for the school's recent production of "Phantom of the Opera" when she received a text asking if she wanted to have dinner at the White House with the first lady.

Christina said the group toured the Red Room, Green Room and Blue Room, which she had seen in photographs.

"I'm a history nerd. I loved looking at all the portraits," she said.

At dinner, each of the local girls was seated at a different place, with two mentors at each table.

Notable guests serving as mentors included Olympic gold medalists Dominique Dawes and Lisa Leslie, astronaut/engineer Ellen Ochoa, Academy Award-winning actress Hilary Swank, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louise Erdrich, Oscar Award-winning actress Geena Davis and actress/screenwriter Rashida Jones, among others.

The adult mentors provided their email addresses and phone numbers, encouraging the girls to contact them if they needed advice or someone to talk to, Grove said.

Christina was seated between Ochoa, who was a music major in college, and hip hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari. She said Ben-Ari had played in the orchestra for "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway, so they talked about their experiences playing the music.

"I could connect with these famous, successful women," Christina said.

Latonya Howard said she wants to be a child-care teacher. Howard went to Girls Inc. from age 6 to 13. She now volunteers there and will be a camp counselor this summer. She was seated with a professor from Pittsburgh.

"It was a wonderful experience. Everybody was real nice, laid back and down-to-earth. There was a good vibe," Latonya said.

The first lady's message was that everyone needs someone to believe in them and to provide support and guidance. Success comes from following your dreams, surrounding yourself with positive people and never giving up — the same message Girls Inc. tries to instill in the girls that attend its program, Grove said.

"I learned nothing in life gets handed to you, that you have to work to get it," Latonya said.

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