Remarks by the President at Presentation of 2012 Presidential Citizens Medals
11:30 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, everybody. Please, please have a seat. Well, it is a pleasure to welcome some of our nation’s finest citizens here to the people’s house. And let me be the first to congratulate each of you and your family members for the receipt of the highest honor a civilian can receive –- the Citizens Medal.
We host a lot of events at the White House but I have to admit this is one of my favorites, because it’s a moment when, as a people, we get to recognize some extraordinary men and women who have gone above and beyond for their country and for their fellow citizens -- often without fanfare; often with not a lot of attention; very rarely for any profit. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, because you want to give back. And today, we honor you. We celebrate you. And, most of all, we have a chance to say thank you. Because all of us are what the rest of us aspire to be.
In America, we have the benefit of living in this big and diverse nation. We’re home to 315 million people who come from every background, who worship every faith, who hold every single point of view. But what binds us together, what unites us is a single sacred word: citizen.
It’s a word that, as I said in my State of the Union Address, doesn’t just describe our nationality or our legal status, the fact that we hold a passport. It defines our way our life. It captures our belief in something bigger than ourselves -- our willingness to accept certain obligations to one another, and to embrace the idea that we’re all in this together; that out of many, we are one. It’s the thing that Tocqueville noticed about America when he first came to visit -- these folks participate, they get involved, they have a point of view; they don’t just wait for somebody else to do something, they go out there and do it, and they join and they become part of groups and they mobilize and they organize.
That’s who we are, that’s in our DNA. That’s what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America. We’ve all got busy lives. We’ve got bills to pay. We’ve got kids to carpool, errands to get done. And in the midst of all the running around, it would be easy -- and even understandable -- for folks to just focus on themselves, to worry about our own lives, to look down the street and see a neighbor in need and say, “I’d like to help but I’ve got problems of my own.” To look across town at a community that’s in despair and say, “That’s just too big a challenge for us to be able to take on.”
That’s not who we are. That’s not what we do. That’s not what built this country. In this country, we look out for one another. We get each other’s backs, especially in times of hardship or challenge. It’s part of the reason why applications to AmeriCorps are at an all-time high. That’s why volunteering in America is at the highest level it’s been in years. And I know that makes Harris proud to hear.
Harris Wofford has devoted his entire life to creating opportunities for Americans to serve. And the reason it’s such a privilege for me to share the stage with him and all the others who are participating here today, is because you’ve taken commitment to a whole new level. Every day, you’re out there righting wrongs. Healing hurts. Changing lives.
And when Janice Jackson was hit by a car at the age of 24, she was told by her doctors that the only thing she would ever move again were her shoulders. After suffering an injury like that, nobody would have faulted Janice for just focusing on herself. But as she recovered, and she regained her strength, she resolved to give some of that strength to others in need. Janice said that “from a wheelchair, I decided to devote my life to women with disabilities…to tell them that even though you have limitations, you also have abilities.” And every day through her mentorship and through her advocacy, that’s exactly what she’s doing.
When Adam Burke returned from Iraq, he had more than earned the right to just focus on himself. He had served our nation with honor; a recipient of the Purple Heart for wounds he received while rescuing a comrade from enemy fire. Because of that attack –- because of the shrapnel that tore through his head and his legs –- when Adam came home, he came home a wounded warrior, suffering from a traumatic brain injury, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But a few years later, Adam found himself back on the family farm, and he noticed that working the land was therapeutic. His coordination improved. He was able to put aside his cane. So he decided to use farming to help other veterans with similar injuries see similar benefits. And by starting Veterans Farm, he’s doing that every day.
When Jeanne Manford learned that her son Morty had been badly beaten up at a gay rights demonstration, nobody would have faulted her for bringing him home, holding him close, just focusing on her child. This was back in 1972. There was a lot of hate, a lot of vitriol towards gays and lesbians and anyone who supported them. But instead, she wrote to the local newspaper and took to the streets with a simple message: No matter who her son was -- no matter who he loved –- she loved him, and wouldn’t put up with this kind of nonsense. And in that simple act, she inspired a movement and gave rise to a national organization that has given so much support to parents and families and friends, and helped to change this country. We lost Jeanne last month, but her legacy carries on, every day, in the countless lives that she touched.
And then when Dawn Hochsprung, and Mary Sherlach, Vicki Soto, Lauren Rousseau, Rachel D’Avino, Anne Marie Murphy -- when they showed up for work at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14th of last year, they expected a day like any other -- doing what was right for their kids; spent a chilly morning readying classrooms and welcoming young students -- they had no idea that evil was about to strike. And when it did, they could have taken shelter by themselves. They could have focused on their own safety, on their own wellbeing. But they didn’t. They gave their lives to protect the precious children in their care. They gave all they had for the most innocent and helpless among us.
And that's what we honor today -- the courageous heart, the selfless spirit, the inspiring actions of extraordinary Americans, extraordinary citizens.
We are a nation of 315 million people. Out of all these folks, around 6,000 were nominated for this medal. And today, you're the ones receiving it not just for what you do, but for what you represent -- for the shining example that you set every single day and the inspiration that you give each of us as fellow citizens, including your President.
So congratulations to the recipients. And now, I would like our military aide to read the citations.
MILITARY AIDE: The Presidential Citizens Medal recipients:
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. (Applause.) As one of America’s most respected voices on child development, Dr. Brazelton has dedicated his life to transforming pediatric care. His pioneering work has given generations of parents the chance to take control of their children’s health from day one. Alongside his duties as a researcher and educator, he fought to secure some of the 20th century’s essential safeguards for families, including guaranteed maternal leave. For his tireless advocacy on behalf of families everywhere, the United States honors Dr. T. Berry Brazelton. (Applause.)
Adam D. Burke. (Applause.) During his ninth year of service in the Army, Adam Burke was diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after saving a comrade from a mortar blast in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. He received a Purple Heart for his heroism. Unwilling to stop serving his country, he turned his family farm into Veterans Farm, a space for wounded warriors to heal by working the land and finding stability on friendly soil. The United States honors Adam D. Burke for his extraordinary service to his country and fellow members of the 9/11 Generation. (Applause.)
Mary Jo Copeland. (Applause.) Driven by her faith and a fierce commitment to her community, Mary Jo Copeland has spent more than a quarter-century lifting up the underserved. Alongside her husband, she grew Sharing and Caring Hands from a small storefront operation in downtown Minneapolis into a charity that provides thousands of men, women and children the chance to live in health and dignity. Her unyielding vision for stronger neighborhoods has inspired people nationwide, and her compassion for the poor and the marginalized speaks to the depth of the human spirit. The United States honors Mary Jo Copeland for sparking hope in those who need it most. (Applause.)
Michael Dorman. (Applause.) When Michael Dorman saw disabled veterans struggling to secure the opportunities they had given so much to preserve, he knew he had to act. A 20-year veteran of the Coast Guard, he founded Military Missions in Action to help veterans with disabilities live independently and support those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. His organization has completed more than 100 home improvement projects across the state of North Carolina and shipped thousands of care packages to service members in the line of duty. The United States honors Michael Dorman for his exceptional service to our Armed Forces and our Nation. (Applause.)
Maria Gomez. (Applause.) Born in Colombia and brought up in Washington, D.C., Maria Gomez has dedicated her life to providing high-quality health care to the community that raised her. Guided by her vision, Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care has delivered exceptional outcomes to disadvantaged populations for more than two decades. Her organization’s integrated approach to medicine, education and social services extends a lifeline to tens of thousands every year, giving families across the D.C. region a chance at a brighter future. The United States honors Maria Gomez for sharing her strength with the underserved. (Applause.)
Pamela Green-Jackson. (Applause.) As Pamela Green-Jackson mourned the loss of her only brother to obesity-related illness, she vowed to honor his memory by saving others from the same fate. The result, Youth Becoming Healthy, has equipped young men and women in Georgia schools with the knowledge and opportunity they need to get a strong start in life. Pamela’s dedication to combating childhood obesity reaffirms our belief that as a nation, we have no higher calling than caring for our children. For putting our sons and daughters on the path to better health, the United States honors Pamela Green-Jackson. (Applause.)
Janice Yvette Jackson. (Applause.) After Janice Jackson was struck by an oncoming car when she was 24 years old, doctors told her she would never be able to move her limbs again. Battling against the odds, she regained control of her left arm and reached for the promise of the years ahead. As a mentor, a counselor and the founder of Women Embracing Abilities Now, she has drawn from the depth of her experience to empower women with disabilities and advocate passionately on their behalf. The United States honors Janice Yvette Jackson for turning personal adversity into a powerful force for change. (Applause.)
Patience A. Lehrman. (Applause.) A first-generation immigrant from Cameroon, Patience Lehrman embodies what it means to be an American citizen. Recognizing that immigrants have always made our country stronger, she has worked to make America a land of greater opportunity for all who call it home. Under her leadership, Project SHINE has helped thousands of aging immigrants and refugees build deeper ties to their communities by connecting them with college students nationwide. The United States honors Patience A. Lehrman for reaffirming the truth inscribed on our nation’s seal: that out of many, we are one. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Jeanne Manford, her daughter Suzanne Swan. (Applause.) In an era when peaceful protests were met with violence and coming out was a radical act, Jeanne Manford knew she had to stand by her son, Morty. Side-by-side, they marched proudly down the streets of New York on Stonewall’s anniversary, calling upon other parents of gay and lesbian Americans to show their children the same love and acceptance. Jeanne’s courage lives on in progress she fought for and in PFLAG, the organization she founded, which today claims more than 200,000 members and supporters in over 350 chapters. For insisting that equality knows no bounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, the United States honors Jeanne Manford. (Applause.)
Billy Mills. (Applause.) As a boy growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Billy Mills rose above adversity by dedicating himself to a dream. He realized the height of his ambition at the 1964 Tokyo Games, where he ran what was then the fastest 10,000 meters in Olympic history. Since then, Billy has spent 26 years lifting other young men and women toward their aspirations through Running Strong for American Indian Youth. His organization has championed wellness and unlocked opportunity in Native American communities across our country. The United States honors Billy Mills for inspiring young people to find the best in themselves. (Applause.)
Terry T. Shima. (Applause.) During World War II, Terry Shima served in the Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which became the most decorated unit of its size in American history. Responsible for securing the 442nd’s legacy, Terry ensured that returning heroes received a welcome befitting their service and sacrifice. As the Executive Director of the Japanese American Veterans Association, he committed himself to preserving the stories of servicemembers who fought and bled overseas, even while many of their families were relocated to internment camps at home. For strengthening the sacred trust between America and its veterans, the United States honors Terry T. Shima. (Applause.)
Harris Wofford. (Applause.) Harris Wofford has spent more than 50 years empowering ordinary citizens to make extraordinary change. A friend to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and an advisor to President John F. Kennedy, Harris fought alongside civil rights leaders to end segregation and advance the march of justice. During his time at the White House, with the Peace Corps, as a Senator, and leading the Corporation for National and Community Service, he gave generations of Americans the chance to serve their country. The United States honors Harris Wofford for upholding national service as one of our Nation’s highest causes. (Applause.)
The Presidential Citizens Medal is awarded to Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto for dedicating themselves to their students and to the community of Newtown, Connecticut. Some had been at Sandy Hook Elementary School for only weeks; others were preparing to retire after decades of service. All worked long past the school bell to give the children in their care a future worth their talents. On December 14, 2012, unthinkable tragedy swept through Newtown, etching the names of these six courageous women into the heart of our nation forever. The United States honors Rachel D’Avino, Dawn Hochsprung, Anne Marie Murphy, Lauren Rousseau, Mary Sherlach, and Victoria Soto for their extraordinary commitment to the students of Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Accepting on behalf of Rachel D’Avino -- her mother, Mary D’Avino and sister, Sarah D’Avino. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Dawn Hochsprung -- her daughter, Erica Lafferty, and mother, Cheryl Lafferty. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Anne Marie Murphy -- her husband, Michael Murphy, and daughters, Paige and Colleen Murphy. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Lauren Rousseau -- her parents, Terry and Gilles Rousseau. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Mary Sherlach -- her husband, Bill Sherlach, and daughters, Katy Sherlach and Maura Schwartz. (Applause.)
Accepting on behalf of Victoria Soto -- her parents, Donna and Carlos Soto. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Let me close by just saying a few words of thanks -- first of all, to Wendy and all the people at the Corporation for National and Community Service, thank you for all that you do to make our communities and our country stronger. We’re very grateful.
To those who nominated these outstanding individuals -- thank you for taking the time to share their stories. The competition was stiff. And your words gave life to their work.
To all the family and friends who are here celebrating with the winners, thank you for the love and support that you provide to them every single day, because they couldn’t do what they do unless somebody had that love and support for them. I know the awardees would agree that this honor belongs not just to themselves but to everybody who supports them.
And finally, to the winners of this year’s Citizens Medal, we want to congratulate you once again. A special note just to the families who are here from Sandy Hook -- we are so blessed to be with you. I’ve gotten to know many of you during the course of some very difficult weeks. And your courage and love for each other and your communities shines through every single day. And we could not be more blessed and grateful for your loved ones who gave everything they had on behalf of our kids.
On behalf of a grateful nation, thanks to all of you for showing us what it means to be a citizen of this country that we love. Hopefully, we will all draw inspiration from this and remember why it is that we’re lucky to be living in the greatest nation on Earth. Thank you all for coming and enjoy the reception. (Applause.)
12:02 P.M. EST