Six Long Beach Island students who helped cultivate the summer harvest at the White House garden Tuesday with first lady Michelle Obama got a surprise when they met President Barack Obama unexpectedly.
The opportunity came as the elementary school students were preparing to leave and there was word that President Obama would be landing shortly on the White House lawn, district Superintendent Karen McKeon said.
Obama was returning from a trip to New Jersey where he toured Hurricane Sandy damage along the Jersey Shore with Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday afternoon.
"The first lady's assistant came up to me as we were finishing up and she asked, 'What time do you have to be out of here because we would like you to meet the president?' And, well, I said we aren't going anywhere, yet," McKeon said.
When Marine One landed, the six students lined up and prepared to meet the president.
The president saw the map of New Jersey on their shirts and he said he was just there today, McKeon said.
"Yeah, I shook his hand. Well, I didn't think that would happen. He was tall, he was very tall," said 10-year-old fifth-grader Leah Kowalski, of Harvey Cedars.
But meeting the commander-in-chief did not overshadow the afternoon the students shared with the first lady.
It was a special visit for the students and chaperones who had their lives changed when Hurricane Sandy destroyed their homes, school and the school garden seven months ago.
After the storm, students from the Long Beach Island Grade School - 140 of them and 17 staff members - moved into the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School in neighboring Surf City.
Traveling to the White House was a welcome reprieve for the students who have had a difficult go of things on Long Beach Island for the last seven months, McKeon said.
A van with the students and two chaperones set out at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning to arrive in Washington, D.C., for their visit.
"We got into the White House at noon and they brought us down to the garden area and there were photographers and picnic tables set up for the kids and the chefs were outside with the grills," McKeon said.
The White House's head chef spoke to the students about what was going to happen and then the first lady came out to speak to the students and introduced each of the schools to one another.
The other schools represented Tuesday included Union Beach Memorial School in Monmouth County.
"She (Michelle Obama) was glad that everybody was safe and sound," McKeon said. "As one of the students said, she was very personable and very down to earth. She asked if they had siblings, if they had pets and how their families were doing."
The students from Long Beach Island Grade School cheered and shouted their motto, 'Let's Move!' to the first lady.
The children were then broken up into groups of three to work in the garden, and two LBI students were grouped with first lady Michelle Obama.
Jordan Leeds, an 11-year-old fifth-grader from Harvey Cedars, said the experience Tuesday was not something she ever thought she would be able to do.
"It was fun. I got to pick radishes, garlic and lettuce. We cooked pizza and it was good.
"It was exciting. We told the first lady about what happened to our houses and she felt bad," Leeds said.
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