The people who try to make a difference

Once again, the White House is honoring a Minnesota difference maker and once again it’s closing the ceremony to the media. Too bad. There are some good stories behind some of these people, although the White House press corps tends to ignore them in order to ask big questions about the big stories inside the Beltway.

These are little stories about real life in flyover country, however.

On Thursday, President Obama will honor Jeff Tollefson, the executive director of Genesys Works in the Twin Cities, which helps students in poverty break into the corporate world. He was a venture capitalist until he left the profitable world for good to start the organization.

Last month, 200 young people who graduated from an 8-week program to teach life skills were “drafted” by 44 companies who are interested in giving them a break.

Next Tuesday, the latest graduating class will be honored and several will tell the stories of their journeys.

The ones from last year’s ceremony are certainly heartwarming.

There’s Alia Manraj, who was a senior at Park Center High School last year.

“If there’s one thing I remember seeing as a child, it had to be a red-and-white can that looked like soda to me. All I knew is we weren’t allowed to taste it; it made mom sad. Every day I’d see dad drink so many of them, and I wondered why he’d drink them,” she told a dinner last year.

“I was angry at the world,” she said about growing older. “I would make excuses for my dad being abusive.”

Hannan Farah, who interned at Carlson Companies in Minnetonka, was six on 9/11. “It was a builder of barriers,” she said. “I could either make the obstacles break me, or let the obstacles make me. I chose to let the obstacles make me.”

“I come from a family where education was the missing piece,” Najee Kennedy said. His mother dropped out of college when she was pregnant in Chicago. His father abandoned the family. His brother’s second felony conviction took a toll on the family.

He said it’s his duty to “pay my dues to her.” She told him she had nothing to live for. So he made a four-year college degree his goal.

Natasha Moore, grew up on Saint Paul’s east side and says she had a pretty good childhood, but says her parents protected her from the real world and she wasn’t ready for it when the family moved to Battle Creek. “We soon discovered that our new block was nothing but a cesspool of all the African American criminals, potential criminals, drug dealers, drug addicts, pedophiles, and neglected children in a seemingly innocent Battle Creek neighborhood,” she said.

“We acted like animals,” she said. “My father had become the neighborhood crackhead, and I the crackhead’s daughter.”

But she learned to be proud of her father, she said, “because I was the only child on my block who had one.”

In many ways, their stories and journeys perfectly frame the issues facing America, but are lost in the day-to-day coverage of the game of politics in Washington. So is the fact that people are doing something to make a difference.