Erin O'Neill/The Star-Ledger May 28, 2013, 3:13:31 PM EDT
WASHINGTON — It’s not every day that a kid from the Jersey Shoregardens with the First Lady of the United States.
It’s even more unlikely that in the same afternoon that kid would shake hands with the President of the United States.
But that was what happened today for 12 students from Monmouth and Ocean counties.
"This is a chance of a lifetime. This is unbelievable," said Karen McKeon, superintendent of the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District. "At my age it’s a chance of a lifetime. At their age it’s like wow, spectacular, I don’t know if it can get any better than this."
First Lady Michelle Obama invited students from the Long Beach Island Grade School and Union Beach Memorial School, both of which sustained significant damage during Hurricane Sandy, to help her harvest crops planted in the White House garden in April.
Joshua Styler-Tracy, an 11-year-old from Ship Bottom, pulled garlic from the White House garden under Michelle Obama’s guidance. He said the best part of his day was "just harvesting with her."
"Don’t be afraid," she told him, as he worked in the sun alongside Jordan Leeds of Harvey Cedars and Madisyn Goias of Union Beach. "Because it’s going to feel like you’re ripping it."
The White House garden was originally planted to raise awareness for the First Lady’s anti-childhood obesity initiative Let’s Move! Students from schools in Somerville, Mass., Knox County, Tenn., Milton, Vt. andWashington, D.C., — who planted the crops this spring — also helped with today’s harvest
The students used the freshly-picked vegetables — including lettuce, radishes and kale — to make whole-wheat pizzas and a salad, which they ate along with lemonade at picnic tables set up next to the garden on the South Lawn of the White House.
First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House kitchen garden with children from Sandy-affected Union Beach and Ship Bottom. Erin O'Neill/The Star-Ledger
The First Lady said since President Barack Obama was visiting the Jersey Shore today, "We thought, well, since he’s going to be there, wouldn’t it be good to have some schools from New Jersey here with us."
"Another one of the reasons why we wanted to invite you guys is I understand that given all that you guys have been through — because many of your schools got damaged in Sandy, right? — but despite that, you guys are still going to school every day, and you’re working on eating healthy, right?," she told the students. "And it hasn’t been that easy, but you guys have managed to get through the school year way on top of the game, and we’re just very proud of you."
Memorial School — the only school in the tiny Monmouth County borough — took on about a foot of water during the storm. On Monday, students will return to the newly-renovated building on Florence Avenue.
The grade school in Long Beach won’t be repaired until next winter at the earliest, McKeon said. But it may take all year to finish renovations, she said.
Styler-Tracy — who had been displaced from his Sandy-damaged home until about a month ago — said he thought the gardening was going to be the extent of his day.
Then he got to meet President Barack Obama, who was just returning toWashington, D.C. from his visit to Asbury Park. The president landed in Marine One, walked across the lawn and shook hands with the students who had been waiting to see him arrive.
"That was surprising," Styler-Tracy said. "It was cool."