When our Community Organizer Jeanne Blaker received an invitation to the White House for a special volunteer forum she was in disbelief. Her surprise private meeting with the President in the Oval Office was even more unbelievable.
Jeanne was amongst 80 volunteers across the United States selected to participate in a Community Leaders Briefing. The President and Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and overseer of the Office of Public Engagement, wanted to learn from volunteers on the ground what they could do to assist communities across the United States.
After the meeting, all attendees were invited to shake the President’s hand and take a quick photo. Wanting to look her best for the President, Jeanne decided to go back to her hotel to change outfits. When she returned, she realized she had left her purse and ID at the hotel. By the time she finally returned to the White House with her ID, Jeanne was too late to participate in the photo session. She returned to her hotel and as it began to rain, Jeanne “wanted to cry.” Her chance to shake the President’s hand had been lost, and she would have to go home dejected. .
How then, did Jeanne find herself in the West Wing of the White House, in the Oval Office, embracing President Barack Obama?
Jeanne’s contribution to the Community Leaders Briefing had caught the administration’s eye—high level officials realized Jeanne wasn’t at the reception with the President and they wanted to make it right.
The White House called her that evening to express their regrets at the situation, and invited her for a VIP tour of the East Wing of the White House. When Jeanne returned to her hotel after the tour, she received another call from the Office of Public Engagement asking if she’d like to tour the West Wing.
The next day Jeanne was led into a conference room adjacent to the Oval Office. While she discussed her plans to promote civic engagement in California with senior White House officials, the President made a surprise appearance. Walking into the room he said “I understand the Blakers are here. Welcome to the White House!”
Jeanne screamed of excitement and the President laughed, then took her by the arm and escorted her to the Oval Office for a few minutes of one-on-one time. The President thanked Jeanne for her leadership and her activism during Jeanne’s 40 years of organizing in South Los Angeles.
The power of meeting the first African American President finally dawned on Jeanne, and she began to cry.
Mr. President, no one will believe I am in the Oval Office. But my mother and other relatives who were civil rights activists are looking down and smiling at me in this moment
But a White House photographer captured the visit.
Before Jeanne left, the President gave her a big hug and asked her to “come see us again soon,” to which she replied, “I’d love to.”