Bronx teens tour White House

Members of the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program toured the White House, decorated for the holidays, in December. They discussed history and careers with President Barack Obama’s political director. Photo courtesy of Bronx YEP

Bronx teenagers who traveled to Philadelphia to campaign for presidential candidate Barack Obama more than a year ago were treated to an exclusive tour of the White House in December. Members of the Bronx Youth Empowerment Program explored the Obama residence, inspected presidential portraits and discussed history with White House political director Patrick Gaspard.

Bronx YEP members asked Gaspard how to succeed. Karin Pressley, 17, of Co-op City hopes to become a lawyer.

“He told us to read, write and ask questions,” the Pelham Preparatory Academy senior said.

Bronx YEP teamed up with 1199 SEIU, the healthcare workers union, to sponsor the Washington, D.C. trip and White House tour. Bronx YEP leader Andy King was a City Council candidate in September. His wife, Bronx YEP leader Neva Shillingford, is an 1199 SEIU executive vice president.

King and Shillingford arranged the Bronx YEP tour on a previous visit to the White House for a holiday party. They escorted the teens to Washington. Gaspard is a former 1199 SEIU executive vice president. He succeeded President George W. Bush’s political director, Karl Rove.

“We had a marvelous conversation [with Gaspard],” King said. “[The teens] asked dynamic questions, tough questions.”

Most Bronx YEP members hail from the northeast Bronx. Jose Serrano, 18, is a junior at Truman High School. He joined Bronx YEP to hone his leadership skills and learn about African-American culture. Serrano, from White Plains Road and E. 220th Street, had never visited Washington before.

“We were in the [White House] Green Room and the Red Room,” he said. “It was smaller than I [had] thought. The White House looks bigger on TV.”

Bronx YEP members were impressed by a Christmas tree “wish box,” the brainchild of First Lady Michelle Obama, Serrano said. The 18-year old wished for healthcare reform.

Gaspard explained that former presidents kept slaves to cook, clean and maintain the White House, 12-year old Nene Ali from the Edenwald Houses said.

“History is important,” Ali said. “We don’t learn about that stuff in school.”

Ali, an accomplished spoken word artist, performed for Gaspard. On paper she slipped into the Christmas tree “wish box,” she scribbled her MySpace and Facebook addresses.

“I want to meet Mr. and Mrs. Obama,” Ali said.

Both Ali and Pressley were struck by a portrait of President John F. Kennedy, his head down. Ali called the portrait “profound.”

“Obama has so many issues,” Pressley said. “But a president before him had to struggle, too. [The portrait] made me feel better.”

If Pressley met the president, she’d ask him for time management tips. She and Serrano plan to share photos from the Washington trip at school.

“[The White House tour] made me think that anything is possible,” Serrano said. “Obama did it.”

Reach reporter Daniel Beekman at 718 742-3383 or

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