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Jenna Bush Hager: 'You have the chance to change people's lives'

The daughter of former president spoke at Shippensburg University Thursday night

April 14, 2011|By C.J. LOVELACE |
  • Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former President George W. Bush, speaks Thursday night at Shippensburg University's H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center as part of the college's Proteus Lecture Series.
By Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. — Despite her famous family name, Jenna Bush Hager has carved out her own identity as a difference maker in the lives of many people.

Hager, the daughter of former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, spoke before a crowd of hundreds of people Thursday night at Shippensburg University's H. Ric Luhrs Performing Arts Center as part of the college's Proteus Lecture Series.

Before becoming a contributing reporter for NBC's "The Today Show," Hager developed a passion for teaching from her mother, who was a librarian before she became the first lady.

From there, she got a job working at a Washington, D.C., charter school and came to know many Latin American children. She knew the kids in school, but wanted to know more about where they came from and lives they left to come to America.

In 2006, Hager interned for UNICEF, an organization that helps children all over the world. Hager got to travel to many poor Latin American and African countries, which are overrun by disease, especially HIV and AIDS.

It was there that she learned that she wanted to tell the stories of as many of those children as possible, "so that they can become more than statistics."

"Because the truth is, numbers don't provide real insight into the way people live," she said. "Their life stories are going to encourage us to change, to grow and to take action.

"I believe the more we know about the plight of people all over the world, the more likely we are to help others," Hager said.

Hager, who also teaches in Baltimore, as a reading coordinator, joined The Today Show" after several trips overseas to help tell the stories of those families — most notably, the story of a Latin American girl named Ana.

"Ana changed my life," Hager said.

Ana was only 17 when Hager met her at a large conference for HIV advocates in Latin America, but she has been living an extremely difficult life, Hager said.

Ana was born with HIV, passed on by her mother, and was orphaned by the time she was in the sixth grade after her family died from AIDS.

The power of education for people in third-world countries really became apparent for Hager as she got to know Ana, she said. When she became pregnant with a baby of her own, Ana was able to learn the steps she needed to take to make sure her child was born HIV-free.

"Mother to child transmission (of HIV) is 99.9 percent avoidable," Hager said.

At the conference where they first met, Ana stood up before the crowd of several hundred people and said, "I want everyone here to know that we're living with HIV-AIDs. We are not dying from it," Hager recalled.

She was so moved by Ana's confidence and maturity, the two began meeting daily while Hager lived and worked in the region for the next nine months. What she learned from the Latin American teenager turned into a New York Times' best-selling book, "Ana's Story: A Journey of Hope."

"Ana represents the 2.3 million kids around the world who are living with HIV-AIDS, many of them face abuse and rejection," Hager said. "She wanted kids in the U.S. to get the facts about living with HIV."

To Ana, living with HIV is not a disease, it is a situation in her life, Hager said in closing.

"I hope by telling you these stories will inspire at least one of you to act," she said. "You have the chance to change people's lives."

Hager entertained questions from the crowd after her speech. One person asked if she had any political aspirations of her own.

"No," she quickly replied.

"Ironically, both my sister and I are not interested in traditional American politics. We're interested more in political issues — but something has turned us off from that," she said over a collective laugh.

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