Former first lady Laura Bush knew she wanted to teach in an inner-city school after she graduated from college with an education degree.
“But I was not prepared for the poverty I saw there,” Bush told about 650 people who attended a fundraising luncheon for the Phoenix Academy in Omaha on Tuesday. “I wanted to help those children so bad. But it was an uphill fight.”
She said one incident from those days stands out and still motivates her to help children and to encourage others to do likewise.
At the end of a semester, she decided to take a few of her favorite students to the now-defunct AstroWorld amusement park in Houston. She picked up several eager kids at their homes, but when she got to the last one, the child opened the door wearing his underwear. Bush said she could hear the mom inside, but the woman never came out to give her permission for the trip. The group had to drive off without the boy.
“Helping kids like this one is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” said Bush, the wife of former President George W. Bush. Tuesday's event, at the CenturyLink Center, benefited the scholarship program at the nonprofit Phoenix Academy, which helps children with learning challenges from across Nebraska and Iowa.
She said children today face obstacles that previous generations didn't know, such as drugs, excessive violence and Internet predators. Many kids spend much more time with peers or alone than they do with family members, she said, and millions have at least one parent in prison. They have no one to turn to for help.
“Young people need us in their lives,” Bush said. “They need to know they are valued and their success matters. The problems are great, but greater still is our love for our children.”
She praised the work of Phoenix Academy, its teachers, parents and supporters. She said she met presidents, prime ministers, the queen of England, the Dalai Lama and the pope when she was first lady, but the most inspirational people she met didn't have such fancy titles: the first responders after 9/11; the men and women who serve in the military; the people who went to the Gulf Coast for Katrina relief.
All had a commitment to service, she said, much like the people behind Phoenix Academy.
She said she often wonders what happened to the 8-year-old who didn't go to AstroWorld, who would be 50 by now. Did he escape that home, graduate from high school or college, find a job? Is he standing in an airport waiting for his son or daughter to return from military service, or is he standing by a highway, homeless, holding a cardboard sign?
“My challenge to you is to never forget that boy,” she said.
One smile, one reading lesson, one considerate touch or one check written makes a difference, she said.
Several Phoenix Academy students got to ask questions after the speech, and she had some advice for them.
“My favorite subject was reading,” she said, responding to one child. “I made my favorite pastime into my career. You might want to think about those things to give you an idea about what you want to do.”
Bush also offered an update on her family: Her in-laws, President George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara, are doing well in their late 80s and were able to attend the May dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
That center, and a new granddaughter, take up a lot of time for the junior Bushes, although Bush said her husband also is working on his golf game.
“I'd like to say our lives are back to normal since we moved to our home in Dallas, but you forget what normal is,” she joked, saying she now has to remind her husband to use the clothes hamper. “Turmoil in East Timor is no longer an excuse not to pick up your socks.”