Editor’s Note: Two local students, Lyra Small of Lin Howe and Emilien Sahli of Culver City High School got to visit the White House for the last Obama Family Christmas with Kidscoop Media. They took pictures, interviewed staff, and wrote up their notes. Today we are presenting Lyra’s story, and tomorrow we will offer Emilien’s. Presenting the holiday White House from a kid’s eye view –
My mom and I have decided to modify Mrs. Obama’s moniker from First Lady to First MOM. Not because she has two daughters, Sasha and Malia. But because she is quintessentially, reliably, empathetically Michelle On a Mission – always on a mission for social good.
When we got wind of the opportunity to cover holiday decorations at the White House for KSM KidScoop Media, We thought, “Well, this will be fun, but’s it a bit of a soft news story. The Obamas have so much to teach us. What are we going to learn from holiday decorations?” But as soon as we arrived, read the press release, and toured the White House, we realized that nothing Mrs. Obama does is without a purpose, a message, or a mission for social good.
For this 2016 White House Christmas, the overall theme is “The Gift of the Holidays,” which reflects on not only the joy of giving and receiving, but also the true gifts of life. Each room is decorated with a social mission: military service, friends and family, healthy eating, and education for girls, etc.
In the Booksellers Room, “The Gift of Service” is represented by a giant American flag installation featuring images of the First Family with military members and Gold Stars hung on the military tree to honor the deceased.
In the Library, “The Gift of an Education” comes to life with Christmas trees crafted from crayons and pencils, and colorful ornaments spell “girl” in 12 different languages, commemorating the First Mom’s “Let Girls Learn” initiative.
In the Green and Red Rooms, towering trees hold ornaments made from fresh fruits and pollinators gathered from the White House garden to represent “The Gift of Health.”
The State Dining Room housed 56 LEGO gingerbread-style houses – made from 200,000+ LEGOS – one for each state and territory. California’s LEGO abode was a beach house adorned with palm trees and a swimming pool.
The White House gingerbread House, which took 8 months to plan and two weeks to construct, is an exact replica that features both the East and West Wings, and is 100% edible.
As part of the White House press corps for the day, we toured the decorations. I had prepared questions in advance, and asked many of the volunteers (all military spouses) in each room about the decorations, and took notes. After the tour, the press was stationed in the back of the East Room, awaiting the arrival of Mrs. Obama to greet the military families in attendance, and escort their children into the State Dining Room to make crafts and decorate cookies. Before Mrs. Obama entered the East Room, someone from the White House communications office told all of the press that there would not be room for everyone in the State Dining Room, because it was a short event and a tight squeeze, they asked us to stay here in the East Room.
Slightly deflated and anticipating that we would miss out on the kids and crafts event, we still eagerly awaited Mrs. Obama’s arrival in the East Room. Suddenly, something magical happened. The Director of Special Events for the White House approached us and said “Given the nature of this event, the fact that Mrs. Obama adores young children, and because I noticed how hard you have been working on this, I want to make sure you get access, so I am going to pull you now and will escort you into the State Dining Room when Mrs. Obama is done speaking.” We were speechless and teary-eyed over what was about to happen, and my mom was beaming with pride that he noticed my work ethic.
But first Mrs. Obama was about to greet her guests in the East Room. When she finally arrived, she was visibly emotional. Always on a mission (First MOM), she told the crowd, “As we celebrate my family’s last holiday season in the White House, I’m thinking back to when we first came here to Washington and we promised to open up this house to as many people from as many backgrounds as possible,” said First Lady Michelle Obama. “We truly wanted to make the White House the ‘People’s House,’ particularly during the holiday seasons.”
As she finished her welcome and gathered the children who would be joining her in the State Dining Room, the White House communications rep escorted us into the room before anyone else, and positioned me in the front row of the press area, with a space labeled just for me.
The event included Mrs. Obama, White House Executive Chef Chris Comerford, White House Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, and White House Chief Floral Designer Hedieh Ghaffarian.
We were hoping that Mrs. Obama would spot me in the press box and invite me to join the children. But the First MOM was so focused on being with the children, and not creating a show for the press, that she never looked our direction. After the event was over, Mrs. Obama, the children, and the bulk of the press corps left the room.
We hung back with one last hope in our minds – to talk with Chef Comerford, who is the first woman and the first Filipino to hold the office of White House Executive Chef, so a particularly inspirational person for me, as the daughter of a Filipino, to know about. Lo and behold, it happened – the Events Director pulled the chef, and brought her over to me. I had done my research on Chef Comerford and prepared questions. But the first thing I told the Chef was, “I’m Filipina too, and my dad is the first Filipino Council member in Culver City.”
Here is an excerpt from my interview:
Q: “Why did you become a chef?”
A: “I decided to become a chef because I had this wonderful talent for putting together food.”
Q: “Were you sad to leave your family and the Philippines to become the White House Head Chef?”
A: “Yes, but I go back and visit every year.”
And the biggest question of all: “What is the President’s favorite food?”
Clearly, Chef Comerford gets this question a lot, and must always be diplomatic and not reveal too much. “You know I’m not supposed to tell you that, but I am going to tell you,” she said. “The President loves good tasting food, as long as it tastes good and is well prepared. We use a lot of the good garden vegetables, and prepare cuisines from around the world.”
And with that, our official duties as members of the White House Press Corps were over. We had a plane to catch back to LA and back to reality, though we’re still flying high over the whole experience. We saw up close and personal the remarkable, indelible and profoundly wonderful First MOM, met a real live heroine in Chef Comerford, and walked the halls of the Obama White House.
Lyra Small is a 4th grader at Linwood Howe Elementary School. Her dad is Culver City Council member Thomas Small. She was on assignment with KSM KidScoop Media (www.kidscoopmedia.org).