State Sen. Catherine Pugh and recently freed aid worker Alan Gross have been invited by the White House to sit with first lady Michelle Obama Tuesday during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, is the new state Senate majority leader and president-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. The White House cited her support for raising the minimum wage and allowing workers to earn paid sick leave — an idea Obama promoted during a visit to Baltimore last week — and said she had developed a reputation as "a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for improving the lives of Maryland families."
Gross, who grew up in Baltimore, attended the University of Maryland and lived in Potomac, was working in Cuba as a subcontractor to the U.S. Agency for International Development when he was arrested in 2009, charged with crimes against the state and sentenced to 15 years in prison. U.S. officials said he was working to connect Cuba's small Jewish community to the Internet.
After months of secret negotiations between U.S. and Cuban officials, Havana granted what both countries said was a humanitarian release. The countries also exchanged spies, and Obama announced plans to loosen restrictions and trade with and travel to Cuba, to restore diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961 and to open an embassy in Havana.
Also invited to sit in the first lady's box is Gross' wife, Judy, his most vocal advocate during his imprisonment.
"While in Cuba, Alan wrote the President letters and since returning has expressed his support for the actions the President's taken with respect to Cuba," a White House statement read. "For five years, from thousands of miles away, Judy fought every day for Alan's release and never gave up hope."
Pugh and Alan and Judy Gross are to sit in the first lady's box in the House chamber with Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, the wife of the vice president, and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president.
Following are the White House descriptions of all invitees.
Malik Bryant (Chicago)
Thirteen-year-old Malik Bryant sent a letter to Santa over the holidays, but rather than request the usual gifts, Malik wrote: "All I ask for is for safety I just wanna be safe." And, rather than mail the letter to the North Pole, a non-profit organization — moved by Malik's plea for the fundamental right to feel safe in his community — redirected the letter to the White House. The President wrote back to Malik, encouraging him and underscoring that Malik's "security is a priority for me in everything I do as President." Malik lives with his mother Keturah and his two sisters in a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. He is in seventh grade, and his favorite subject is math.
Chelsey Davis (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Student, Pellissippi State Community College
A native of Jefferson City, Tennessee Chelsey Davis decided that community college was the best path to re-enter her collegiate career with the ideal support and resources. In May 2015, Chelsey will graduate from Pellissippi State Community College with plans to pursue a B.A. in Nutritional Science. Chelsey currently serves on the Student Activities Board and as a New Student Orientation Leader at her community college. She also participates in the Knoxville Food Policy Council meetings and tutors elementary and middle school children in reading and mathematics at The First Tee of Greater Knoxville Learning Center. She has an interest in national and international humanitarian work and is excited to have an opportunity to study abroad in Segovia, Spain with the Tennessee Consortium of International Studies (TnCIS) this summer. After graduation, Chelsey plans to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA. Chelsey met President Obama, Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden earlier this month at Pellissippi State Community College when the President announced his "America's College Promise" proposal. It makes two years of community college free for responsible students. As someone who understands the benefits of community colleges first-hand, Chelsey hopes to encourage high school graduates to take full advantage of the opportunity.
William Elder, Jr. (Englewood, Colo.)
Medical School Student
William Elder, Jr. graduated from Stanford, and is currently a third-year medical student at the Boonshoft School of Medicine at Wright State University in Ohio. Bill was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was eight years old, at a time when most cystic fibrosis patients were only expected to live to early adulthood. But thanks to a unique collaboration between the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, patients, researchers, and a pharmaceutical company, Bill, now 27, expects to live a long, full life. He benefits from a medication that targets the underlying cause of the disease for a small subset of cystic fibrosis patients. Inspired by his doctors and care team, Bill plans to become a family practitioner with a focus on preventative care. Bill's story is a testament to the promise of precision medicine, an emerging approach to treatment that takes into account patients' individual characteristics, such as their genetic make-up, to improve treatment.
LeDaya Epps (Compton, Calif.)
LeDaya Epps never had things handed to her. Born in Compton and raised in the Los Angeles foster care system until she was a teenager, LeDaya graduated high school but found it difficult to secure a stable job, bouncing from job to job as a medical assistant for years. She hit a few roadblocks in life and couldn't find the reliable work and pay that she needed to provide for her three children. That changed when she was afforded the opportunity to complete a union apprenticeship in construction. She became one of only two women to complete the program, which included a rigorous boot camp that only one other woman completed, and now she has a good job – a union job – on the crew building the new Crenshaw/LAX light rail line with Walsh/Shea Corridor Constructors as a member of Laborers Local 300. LeDaya lives in Compton with her three children, ages 15, 11, and 3.
Rebekah Erler (Minneapolis, Minn.)
Rebekah Erler, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a 36-year-old working wife and mother of two preschodol-aged boys. Rebekah's family was hit hard by the downturn in the housing market when her husband's construction business went under. After relocating from Seattle to Minneapolis and a number of difficult jobs, Rebekah's husband is now back in the re-modeling industry, gets home in time for dinner each night with their family, and is enjoying continued professional growth. Rebekah took out student loans to go to a local community college for career re-training and is now back in the workforce as an accountant. Rebekah and her husband recently bought their first home. Rebekah told her story to the President in March when she sent him a letter. But, Rebekah's letter was more about her family's future than it was about her past and the struggles they've overcome. Rebekah detailed the rising cost – from groceries to student loan payments to child care – of doing right by your family. Rebekah's story is representative of the experiences of millions of resilient Americans: While our economy has made a strong comeback, too many middle class Americans families with two hardworking parents are still stretched too thin. That's why the President spent a day in Minnesota with Rebekah, and that's why he's chosen to lift up her story again.
Victor Fugate (Kansas City, Mo.)
Victor Fugate first wrote to the President three years ago, sharing how he went from being an unemployed new father continuing his education to obtaining his degree and working with low-income patients to obtain medical care. In July, the President had the opportunity to meet Victor when he visited Kansas City, and Victor thanked the President for his focus on the economy, health care and student loans – issues Victor personally knows are central for hard-working Americans trying to build a decent life for their families. In his current position with an agency of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, Victor sees firsthand how the Affordable Care Act is helping people's lives, and he personally benefited from the ACA – using an exchange to get health care when he was laid off from his job as a financial counselor. Victor credits the flexibility from the Income Based Repayment Plan for allowing him to complete his education. He and his wife are able to pay off their student loans at a rate his family can afford. Victor is married and has a four-year-old daughter.
Staff Sgt. Jason Gibson, U.S. Army, Ret. (Westerville, Ohio)
Letter Writer, Wounded Warrior
Jason Gibson, a wounded warrior, first met the President in 2012 at Walter Reed while recovering from injuries he sustained serving his country in Afghanistan. In October, Jason wrote a letter to thank the President for visiting him as he recuperated and to underscore that "there is life after a traumatic event and good can come of all things." Jason detailed the year he spent in California after his 21 surgeries: despite losing both legs and being unable to use prosthetics, he took up surfing and skiing, completed multiple marathons on a hand cycle, and even obtained his pilot's license. Back home in Ohio, a non-profit group helped build Jason and his wife Kara a house specially designed for their needs. And Jason filled the President in on something else too – soon their needs would change as Kara was pregnant and due the next month with their first child, a baby girl. Quinn Leona Gibson was born on November 21, 2014.
Alan and Judy Gross (Washington, D.C.)
After five years of wrongful imprisonment in Cuba, USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross was reunited with his wife Judy and his family on December 17. That same day – with Alan's unjust captivity resolved – the President announced to the world that the United States was changing its relationship with the people of Cuba. In the most significant changes in policy in more than 50 years, the President directed that we would begin to normalize relations between our two countries. While in Cuba, Alan wrote the President letters and since returning has expressed his support for the actions the President's taken with respect to Cuba. For five years, from thousands of miles away, Judy fought every day for Alan's release and never gave up hope. Today, Alan and Judy are reunited in Washington, DC, spending time with their daughters and friends. "It's good to be home," Alan said.
Nicole Hernandez Hammer (Southeast Florida)
Mother and Sea Level Rise Researcher
Growing up in South Florida, Nicole Hernandez Hammer knows firsthand the impacts of climate change and sea level rise and is raising awareness to the disproportionate effects felt along the coast and beyond. As a sea level researcher she has studied how cities and regions most vulnerable to the effects of climate change also have large concentrations of Hispanics. She immigrated from Guatemala and also has Cuban heritage, and now Nicole works to mobilize the Latino community to understand and address the devastating effects that disproportionately affect the health of Hispanics and their families. To that end, Nicole works with Moms Clean Air Force to further the public's awareness of climate change on children's health. Nicole lives in Southeast Florida with her husband and her son.
Scott Kelly (Houston)
This March, Astronaut Scott Kelly will launch to the International Space Station and become the first American to live and work aboard the orbiting laboratory for a year-long mission. While living on the International Space Station, Kelly and the rest of the crew will carry out hundreds of research experiments and work on cutting-edge technology development that will inspire students here at home in science, technology, engineering and math. Additionally, scientists will compare medical data from Scott and his twin brother, Astronaut Mark Kelly, to gain insight into how the human body responds to longer durations in space. This research will support the next generation of space exploration and President Obama's goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. Prior to becoming an astronaut, Kelly was an accomplished pilot who served his country as a naval aviator. He was selected by NASA to become an astronaut in 1996 and has logged more than 180 days in space. He served as both pilot and commander on space shuttle missions as well as serving as commander for a long-duration mission on the International Space Station. Scott lives in Houston, Texas, and has two daughters.
Anthony Mendez (Bronx, N.Y.)
Student, "Reach Higher" Initiative
Growing up in the South Bronx with his mother and three siblings, Anthony Mendez names two experiences from his formative high school years. In ninth grade, his best friend was murdered in his neighborhood, and the next year his family was evicted from their home and moved into a homeless shelter. Living two hours away from school, for six months Anthony had to wake up at 4:30AM to continue his education. Overcoming these experiences, he became the first high school graduate in his family – his story of perseverance represents the core of First Lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative. In July he met the First Lady and fellow students who never took their education for granted, and he said he learned to be proud of his past and never hide from it. Today Anthony is a freshman at the University of Hartford -- where he plans to study Political Science – on a partial track and field scholarship.
Larry J. Merlo (East Greenwich, R.I.)
President and Chief Executive Officer, CVS Health
Larry Merlo, 59, is President and Chief Executive Officer of CVS Health, which serves 100 million people each year through its 7,800 retail pharmacies, 900 walk-in medical clinics, and a pharmacy benefits manager with nearly 65 million plan members. As part of the company's commitment to public health, in 2014 Merlo announced the landmark decision to be the first major retail pharmacy to eliminate tobacco sales in all of its stores. To reflect this broader health care commitment, the company subsequently changed its corporate name to CVS Health. Merlo has prioritized the company's commitment to creating economic opportunities for current and future colleagues at all levels. CVS Health recognizes the value of military service and has a long-standing commitment to hiring qualified veterans and military spouses. The company has also established programs to hire long-term unemployed workers, create summer jobs for youth and transition workers off public assistance. CVS Health also trains pharmacy technicians through apprenticeship programs, offers scholarships to future pharmacists, and engages diverse students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers. Merlo, a pharmacist by education, joined CVS/pharmacy in 1990 through the company's acquisition of Peoples Drug, and he and his wife of 36 years, Lee Ann, live in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and have a daughter, Kristen.
Katrice Mubiru (Woodland Heights, Calif.)
Letter Writer, Career Technical Education Teacher
In January 2012, Katrice Mubiru, a career-technical education teacher for the Los Angeles unified school district, sent a letter to the President encouraging him to support K-12, adult and career technical education. Katrice met and introduced the President in July when he visited Los Angeles Trade-Technical College to highlight programs for citizens to learn the skills that growing technical fields require. As a teacher, Katrice has witnessed how technical education can change lives, and she wrote the President to share stories of students who pursued an education, despite difficult financial odds, on their way to news jobs in the growing health care field. Katrice is a Los Angeles native who graduated from California State University Long Beach, and is married with four children ages 7, 9, 17 and 19.
Astrid Muhammad (Charlotte, N.C.)
Astrid Muhammad, a wife and mother of 6- and 10-year-olds, was diagnosed with a brain tumor in May 2013, but at the time she didn't have health insurance and delayed treatment. Last year, she enrolled in the Marketplace and obtained health insurance. Prior to the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies could have refused treatment for her pre-existing tumor, but on August 28 – now fully insured – she had surgery to remove the tumor. In October, Astrid wrote to the President -- thanking him for passing the Affordable Care Act. Without her surgery, her neurosurgeon said the outcome would have been fatal and that Astrid, 39, could have lost her battle in only two years. She wanted to share her gratitude and new lease on life with the President, writing, "I would love to shake his hand and thank him." On Tuesday, she will have that opportunity.
Kathy Pham (Washington, D.C.)
United States Digital Service
Kathy Pham is a computer scientist with a passion for public service. Throughout her career, she has used technology to tackle pressing challenges. From Google to IBM to Harris Healthcare Solutions, she has designed health care interoperability software, studied disease trends with data analytics, and built data warehouses for hospitals. At the United States Digital Service, her background in technology unites with her commitment to service. This commitment is rooted in her family's story—her parents came to America in pursuit of a better life, her mother received critical cancer treatment thanks to the Affordable Care Act, and her brother earned the Purple Heart for service in Afghanistan. Today, Kathy is applying the cutting-edge skills she honed in the private sector to improve health IT for more Americans, expand veterans' access to benefits, and transform the way government provides services to families like hers.
Capt. Phillip C. Tingirides (Irvine, Calif.)
Los Angeles Police Department
The south Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts has seen dramatic improvement in the crime rate since the area was tied to the eponymous race riots of 1965 and a spate of gang violence in the '90s – and Captain Phillip C. Tingirides has worked toward and seen a continued decrease in crime since the start of the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) program in late 2011. Working for the LAPD since 1980, Captain Tingirides has in recent years spearheaded the CSP program, which fosters cooperation between the LAPD and residents of the Watts housing developments scarred from decades of distrust. In recent years, there has been a 50 percent reduction in violent crime thanks in part to the CSP program, which encourages dialogue at community meetings with police who personally engage with residents rather than only make arrests. Captain Tingirides is married to Sergeant Emada Tingirides of the LAPD, and the LAPD coordinator of the CSP program. Together they have six children.
Catherine Pugh (Baltimore)
Maryland Senate Majority Leader
Senator Catherine Pugh is a small business owner who currently serves as the Maryland Senate Majority Leader and is also President-elect of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. First elected to office in 1999 as a member of the Baltimore City Council, during her time in the state legislature, Senator Pugh has passed more than 100 bills, garnering praise and a reputation as a knowledgeable and passionate advocate for improving the lives of Maryland families. A supporter of raising the minimum wage, Senator Pugh supported and worked with the Maryland's Women Caucus to pass a $10.10 minimum wage increase in Maryland. A believer that workers should not have to choose between going to work over taking care of themselves and their families' health, Senator Pugh recently introduced the "Healthy Working Families Act," a bill that seeks to provide Maryland workers with earned paid sick leave.
Carolyn Reed (Denver)
Letter Writer, Small Business Owner
Carolyn Reed wrote to the President about how she was able to expand her small business and open an additional Silver Mine Subs shop in Denver thanks to a loan from the Small Business Administration. In her note, she also mentioned that she looked forward to benefiting from the Affordable Care Act, and currently she and her husband, David, are enrolled in the Colorado state exchange. Earlier this year in Denver, the President had dinner with Carolyn and other Coloradoans who wrote to him. The day after their meeting, Carolyn and her husband – inspired by the President's call and the story of another letter writer – announced that they would give their hourly employees a raise to $10.10. Carolyn and David now own seven Silver Mine Subs shops, and they are looking to continue their expansion. They have six children, four of whom work for their growing business.
Dr. Pranav Shetty (Washington, D.C.)
International Medical Corps
Dr. Pranav Shetty is the Global Emergency Health Coordinator for International Medical Corps, a critical partner in the U.S.-supported effort to bring the Ebola epidemic under control in West Africa. In August 2014, Dr. Shetty deployed to Liberia to establish and oversee two Ebola treatment units, teams of rapid responders that deploy to Ebola hot spots across the country, and a training center for local and international health care workers now working on the frontlines of the Ebola response effort. Dr. Shetty arrived back in the U.S. in late December and will return to West Africa later this week to help establish International Medical Corps' first Ebola treatment center in Guinea. Prior to the Ebola crisis, he responded to emergencies in Haiti, Libya, South Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, and the Philippines. Dr. Shetty is a U.S.-trained emergency medicine physician with a Masters of Public Health and has worked for International Medical Corps since 2011. He is based in Washington, DC, and serves as the initial health technical lead for International Medical Corps' major emergency response operations worldwide.
Prophet Walker (Carson, Calif.)
Watts United Weekend, Co-Founder
While serving a six-year prison sentence for robbery, Prophet Walker, now 27, vowed never to get caught in the revolving door of a life of crime and continued incarceration. He turned his focus to education, starting a program in prison that provides fellow inmates a chance to complete a two-year degree. Once out of prison, Prophet attended Loyola Marymount University's school of Engineering, and more than 100 others in the program he founded have gone on to attend various universities. Ever since, Prophet has enjoyed a career as construction engineer and served the community, working with InsideOUT Writers, a group that teaches juvenile offenders to express themselves through writing, and also as a founding member of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which advocates for sentencing reform and supports young men and women after incarceration. Prophet has also worked to strengthen the bonds between law enforcement, community stake holders, parents and the children of local housing projects by co-founding Harold Robinson Foundation's' Watts United Weekend, which provides weekend camp retreats for hundreds of people weekly. Through his work in the south Los Angeles community of Watts, Prophet has worked with Captain Tingirides of the LAPD – also a guest in the First Lady's State of the Union box. They've collaborated on the Community Safety Partnership, which encourages building positive relationships and mutual trust between the community and law enforcement. Prophet credits his young daughter, Pryia, for his continued inspiration when working with young people.
Tiairris Woodward (Warren, Mich.)
Working for the local school system, Tiairris Woodward, 43, wasn't making enough money to support herself and her three children, the youngest of whom has special needs. She started working for Chrysler in 2010 on the assembly line, and after doing both jobs full time, working 17 hours a day, Tiairris was in a position to move solely to Chrysler – a union job that makes her a member of United Auto Workers Local 7. After a year on the job, she saved enough to buy a car and rent a new apartment, and through Chrysler's Tuition Assistance Program, Tiairris is pursuing her bachelor's degree in business management. Tiairris' story is one of many made possible through the comeback of Detroit and the American auto industry. The President is focused on ensuring more Americans like Tiairris – not just a fortunate few – share in the benefits of our American resurgence.
Ana Zamora (Dallas)
Letter Writer, Student, DREAMer
Ana wrote to the President in September, "As with any other dreamer, my parents came to this country with a dream of a better future for their children." And through the Administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Ana is closer than ever to fulfilling those dreams. In 2012, she qualified and was granted temporary relief and work authorization – an opportunity Ana credits with getting a job in line with her career path and a better livelihood while finishing up her last year at Northwood University in Texas. Ana's life has fundamentally changed for the better as a result of DACA. And because she has siblings who are U.S. citizens, her parents, a small business owner and a construction worker, are among the millions of people who are potentially eligible for the new Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program announced by the President last November. She hopes others can learn from her experience and mentors fellow students hoping to request temporary relief through DACA. After college Ana hopes to continue her studies and attend graduate school. She will also remain committed to supporting young students looking for an opportunity like she's been afforded. Ana celebrated her first birthday in the U.S. and as she wrote the President, "The United States is my country. It is where I grew up, took my first steps, learned to read, write, play, graduated from high school, and will graduate from college."