Remarks by the President Honoring the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal Recipients
2:26 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you. Please, have a seat. Have a seat.
Thank you very much, Senator Burris, and hello, everybody. Welcome to the White House. I want to start by recognizing the very proud members of Congress who are joining us to help celebrate a few of their outstanding constituents. So thank you all for coming.
We are here to recognize -- and this is one of my favorite events that I do every year -- we’re here to recognize winners of the Citizens Medal. This is one of the highest honors a President can bestow. For 40 years, this medal has been given to men and women who have “performed exemplary deeds of service for their country or their fellow citizens.” And their lives stand as shining examples of what it means to be an American.
Today, we’ve got an opportunity to tell their stories, to say thank you, and to offer them a small token of our appreciation.
Now, at first glance, the honorees behind me don’t seem to have too much in common, although I did point out that the guys are outnumbered. (Laughter.) Which tells you something about who really gets stuff done in the neighborhoods. (Laughter.) But they are mothers and fathers; nurses and bus drivers; veterans and immigrants. They come from different backgrounds and they hail from every corner of our country.
But what unites these citizens, what makes them special, is the determination they share -- to right a wrong; to see a need and then meet it; to recognize when others are suffering and take it upon themselves to make a difference.
When they saw a veteran in need of proper care, or a teenage mom who could use a helping hand, they didn’t just shake their heads and keep on walking. They didn’t write it off as another example of life not being fair. Instead, they saw it as a problem to solve, a challenge to meet, a call to action that they could not ignore.
So, just to give a few examples here. When Jorge Muñoz saw homeless men gathered on a street corner with nothing to eat, he could have rolled up his window and driven away. Instead he came home from his job as a school bus driver and started cooking hot meals for anyone who was hungry. These days, the “Angel of Queens” feeds over 100 people every night, rain or shine. And Jorge says, ”You have to see their smile. That’s what I get paid.”
Or, Susan Retik’s husband was killed when his plane was flown into the World Trade Center on September 11th. And nobody would have blamed Susan if she had turned inward with grief or with anger. But that isn’t who she is. So instead, she and another widow started “Beyond the 11th,” and this is a group that empowers Afghan widows affected by war and terrorism. And Susan says, “These women are not our enemy.”
So for Jorge and Susan and the rest of today’s honorees, the words “not my problem” don’t exist. Instead, they ask themselves, “If I don’t help this person, who will?” They recognize that no matter how difficult their lives may be, no matter how daunting their own challenges may seem, someone else will always have it harder than they do. There will always be a more important cause to fight for.
For these men and women, serving others isn’t just the right thing to do -- it’s the obvious thing to do. They may not be rich or powerful in the traditional sense. But they believe that those of us with a roof over our heads, with loved ones to go home to, with food in our stomachs and strength in our limbs, have been blessed. And in return, it’s our duty to use those gifts to reach out to those who aren’t so lucky.
And this humility and this selflessness has always been a part of the American story. From the patriots who have worn our nation’s uniform to everyday Americans who have marched and fought and raised their voices to help perfect our union, it’s no coincidence that our founding document begins with the words “We the People.” Ours is a nation founded on the power and freedom of individuals, but also on the belief that I am my brother’s keeper and I am my sister’s keeper -- and that only if we look out for one another can we all move forward together.
As Lisa Nigro, another one of today’s honorees, said, “Once you find a common bond in your humanity, you start to see the less fortunate as people -- not ‘them’ or ‘those’ people. They are you and me.”
That was the idea behind the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act -- a landmark piece of legislation that I signed into law last year. And together with the work of the Corporation of National and Community Service, as well as the Office of Social Innovation, it’s giving more Americans the opportunity to serve others and help address our greatest challenges. And I want to thank Patrick Corvington and Melody Barnes for their leadership. Because we know that real change does not come from Washington -- it comes from the grassroots; from men and women in communities all across the country working together to make a difference.
In the end, that’s what service is all about. It’s not about the recognition or the awards -- and it’s obviously not about the money. (Laughter.) To quote George Weiss, who’s being honored here today, “We don’t do it for the notoriety. We do it because we felt it has to be done.”
And that’s why it is my hope that if this award serves a purpose, it will be to inspire more Americans to open their hearts, to strengthen their communities, and to follow the example of these amazing men and women who are here today.
So congratulations to all of the winners of the Citizens Medal. (Applause.) I’ve got some military aides here, and one of them is going to read the citations. And I am going to get the medals to present to each of our honorees. With that, let’s get started.
MILITARY AIDE: The Presidential Citizens Medal recipients:
Roberta Diaz Brinton. (Applause.) For two decades, Roberta Diaz Brinton has devoted her time and efforts to improving science education for students in East Los Angeles. As Director of the University of Southern California’s Science, Technology and Research Program, she has opened doors for thousands of disadvantaged and minority inner-city students through one-on-one mentoring, hands-on learning opportunities, and college scholarships. The United States honors Roberta Diaz Brinton for encouraging America’s next generations to reach for the stars. (Applause.)
Daisy M. Brooks. (Applause.) When a pregnant teenager with no place to stay arrived at her door, Daisy M. Brooks welcomed the young woman and provided her with the care and support she needed. What followed was a lifelong commitment to helping many of northern Chicago’s young mothers and their infants. She opened Daisy's Resource and Developmental Center to serve as a dormitory, school, and place for young women to improve their lives. For offering priceless guidance and support to young women in need, the United States honors Daisy M. Brooks. (Applause.)
Betty Kwan Chinn. (Applause.) As a child growing up in China, Betty Kwan Chinn’s family was the victim of persecution, and she was separated from her parents and forced to live on the streets. As a result of the trauma, she became mute. But when she came to America, Betty Chinn found both her voice and her mission, aiding those without shelter on our own shores. Every day, starting before dawn, she loads up a truck and provides meals to the homeless as an expression of gratitude to the nation that welcomed her. The United States honors Betty Kwan Chinn for renewing America’s promise in serving those in need. (Applause.)
Cynthia M. Church. (Applause.) Even as she faced her own difficult battle with cancer, Cynthia M. Church took on a larger cause. Dismayed by the lack of resources for women of color with breast cancer, she founded Sisters on a Mission, an African American breast cancer support network in Delaware. For confronting the scourge of this terrible disease and working to halt its spread, the United States honors Cynthia M. Church. (Applause.)
Susan Retik Ger. (Applause.) After losing her husband on September the 11th, 2001, Susan Retik became determined to help other families who have lost loved ones to terror and extremism. Even as she mourned her loss, she started a program to help Afghan widows, one that now helps women across Afghanistan to earn a sustainable income and provide for their families. The United States honors Susan Retik Ger for advancing women’s rights and demonstrating the power of America’s ideals. (Applause.)
Mary K. Hoodhood. (Applause.) Physical limitations have never hindered Mary K. Hoodhood’s determination to serve her community. Though a car accident left her paralyzed, she began volunteering to feed the hungry through her local Meals on Wheels program. In 2001, she founded Kids’ Food Basket, which provides meals to thousands of children in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area. The United States honors Mary K. Hoodhood for her remarkable efforts to nourish our nation’s children. (Applause.)
Kimberly King McGuiness. (Applause.) As a parent and advocate, Kimberly King McGuiness has been a tireless champion for deaf students. Her letters, phone calls, visits to state legislators, and her unflinching persistence on behalf of her child in this cause helped spur the passage of Georgia’s Deaf Child’s Bill of Rights. She has led workshops, counseled parents, and changed lives, raising awareness and support for deaf education. The United States honors Kimberly King McGuiness for demonstrating that one citizen can achieve for an entire community. (Applause.)
Jorge Muñoz. (Applause.) Through daily acts of selflessness and humanity, Jorge Muñoz embodies a simple idea: that we all have a stake in one another. Each night, 365 days a year, he and his mobile soup kitchen provide free, hot, home-cooked meals to those who would often otherwise go hungry. For his compassionate spirit of service and sacrifice on behalf of the less fortunate, the United States honors Jorge Muñoz. (Applause.)
Lisa Nigro. (Applause.) Lisa Nigro’s mission to aid those living on the streets of Chicago has inspired us all. What began with a small wagon loaded with donated food became the Inspiration Cafe, a restaurant for homeless men and women, expanding with partner organizations to provide housing, job training, and vital support to Chicagoans affected by poverty. For her tireless service to her fellow citizens, the United States honors Lisa Nigro. (Applause.)
MaryAnn Phillips. (Applause.) Caring for America’s injured service members, MaryAnn Phillips embodies a spirit of service and compassion. An American citizen living in Germany, she spends countless hours volunteering with Soldiers Angels at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, distributing donated supplies and sitting at the bedsides of our wounded warriors, to care for them, encourage them, and often to grieve with them. The United States honors MaryAnn Phillips for putting her patriotism into action as an angel for our troops and our nation. (Applause.)
Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam. (Applause.) Devoted to preserving America’s public lands, Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam has inspired tens of thousands of young men and women to serve this country by protecting its natural bounty. Her vision to create a way for volunteers to serve in our national parks led to the birth of the Student Conservation Association. The United States honors Elizabeth Cushman Titus Putnam for helping to ensure that America’s public lands and natural treasures are safeguarded for future generations. (Applause.)
Myrtle Faye Rumph. (Applause.) Ever since she lost her own son two decades ago, Myrtle Faye Rumph has sought to give at-risk youth a safe haven from gang activity, opening Al Wooten Jr. Heritage Center in her son’s honor. Her commitment to reducing gang and gun violence in her community has steered countless young people off a dangerous and destructive path, changing and saving lives. The United States honors Myrtle Faye Rumph for creating, in the face of violence and despair, a refuge and source of hope. (Applause.)
George J. Weiss, Jr. (Applause.) For more than three decades, George J. Weiss, Jr., has helped our nation pay its final respects to the men and women who have worn its uniform. In 1979, he founded the Fort Snelling Memorial Rifle Squad, which today comprises more than 125 volunteers. They have performed final military honors for more than 55,000 deceased veterans. The United States honors George J. Weiss, Jr., for his extraordinary service to our nation’s veterans and their families. (Applause.)
THE PRESIDENT: Well, you see why this is one of my favorite ceremonies? (Laughter.) I want to thank all of you for joining us to honor these remarkable people. None of them asked for this award. They didn’t apply for it. Instead they were nominated by the men and women all across the country whose lives they have touched. And even though their names may not be well-known -- at least not until today -- (laughter) -- they are heroes to those who need it the most.
And together, they remind us that we all have a purpose on this Earth that goes beyond our own lives and our own individual needs. And they teach us that no matter what challenges we face, we each have the power to make the world a better place.
So congratulations to all of you. We are better as a country as a consequence of your ordinary -- extraordinary service. And you exemplify what it means to be a citizen of the United States of America. We’re grateful.
Thank you all for coming. (Applause.)
2:46 P.M. EDT