A crowd of more than 6,000 stood in blistering heat Friday to listen to President Barack Obama speak at Carnegie Mellon University, a stop on his “Betting on America” bus tour.
But a handful, including a third-grader from John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Washington, whose mother served in Iraq and is stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, met the president during a private reception following the rally.
Nena Hatcher, 8, was escorted by Jody Lydic, Nena’s guardian since her mother, Liz Kitchens, enlisted in the U.S. Army four-and-a-half years ago.
And for a brief moment, the little girl had the ear of the president of the United States.
“He shook her hand and asked her name,” said Lydic. “She was shy and said her name very quietly.”
Lydic, a neighborhood team leader for Obama’s presidential campaign, was momentarily tongue-tied, too, but told him, “I’m Catholic and I have your back, and I thank you for having mine,” she said.
Nena last saw her mother over the Christmas holiday, when Kitchens and her husband, Nathan Janson, both Army medics, surprised Nena with a visit.
Unaware her mother and step-father would be home briefly for Christmas, Nena organized a DVD drive for her mother’s Army unit, and wound up sending care packages – including DVDs and snacks - to U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“She’s very generous with everything. Her heart is open to everybody,” said Lydic. “It’s not great to grow up without her mom, but she’s had some great experiences.”
When Lydic was invited to attend Friday’s rally because of her volunteer work with the campaign, she asked organizers if she could bring Nena. She also sent along a new article published in the Observer-Reporter that highlighted Nena’s efforts.
“A woman called me and said not only can she come, they would like to take pictures of Nena with the president. She has made absolutely the biggest sacrifice for this country, growing up without her mom for five years,” said Lydic.
Nena and Lydic arrived at CMU at about 9:30 a.m., where they checked in with the Secret Service and were given name tags.
The were scheduled to meet with the president before the speech, but his motorcade was running late, so the group met him afterward.
Nena brough “Of Thee I Sing,” a children’s book Obama wrote for his daughters – and a gift for Nena from Lydic’s son, Ben, a long-time friend of Kitchens – for him to autograph.
The pair also had a professional photograph taken with the president. Cell phones and cameras were not permitted during the meeting, and the photo will be mailed to them.
More exciting than meeting the president, for Nena, was news she recently received: her mother, who re-enlisted recently, will be stationed in Bethesda, Md., in October. Kitchens, now married, will have custody of Nena.
“I’m so excited for her and her mom. They’ll be reunited permanently,” said Lydic.
Meanwhile, Janson, who is stationed at Fort Bliss, will be deployed overseas in December.
Lydic and her husband, Jeff, have cared for Nena since her mother joined the Army as a single mom. Their own two children are grown, and the couple will miss having Nena around.
“I really did enjoy every minute of every day with Nena. It was wonderful to have her,” said Lydic. “This is what we’ve been working for the whole time, though. Her mom joined the Army to build a better life for them, and that’s what she’s done.”