Austintown school counselor honored in first lady’s final speech
By Jordyn Grzelewski
In an emotional farewell speech, Michelle Obama told the nation, “Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life.”
A Mahoning Valley woman felt honored, too, during the remarks delivered Jan. 6 at the White House.
Austintown Elementary School counselor Kelley Mills was among the school counselors from across the country who stood onstage with Obama during her final speech as first lady.
“That was absolutely unbelievable to be a part of it,” said Mills, who stood at the back of the stage, several rows behind Obama.
Mills was in Washington, D.C., to be recognized as the 2017 Counselor of the Year State Representative for Ohio after being selected as Ohio’s Elementary School Counselor of the Year and overall School Counselor of the Year.
Mills’ D.C. visit included a personal meeting with the first lady.
“She came into the room and met all of us,” said Mills. “It was very sincere and very appreciative of the work we do as school counselors.”
Mills said Obama encouraged the group to “keep doing what we are doing, helping the little ones – and even though they [the Obamas] are leaving the White House, they are going to keep doing these initiatives that promote higher education and the youth.”
Mills also met numerous celebrities – including singer Usher and actor Connie Britton – who attended the first lady’s event.
Education has been a centerpiece of the first lady’s agenda during her eight years in the White House. In her final speech, she talked about her “Reach Higher” initiative, which launched in 2014.
“Now, when we first came up with this idea, we had one clear goal in mind: We wanted to make higher education cool. We wanted to change the conversation around what it means and what it takes to be a success in this country,” Obama said. “Because let’s be honest, if we’re always shining the spotlight on professional athletes or recording artists or Hollywood celebrities, if those are the only achievements we celebrate, then why would we ever think kids would see college as a priority? So we decided to flip the script and shine a big, bright spotlight on all things educational.”
Obama credited school counselors such as Mills with helping to make her initiative a success.
“And we know that school counselors like all of the folks standing with me on this stage have played a critical role in helping us get there,” she said. “So our school counselors are truly among the heroes of the ‘Reach Higher’ story. And that’s why we created this event two years ago, because we thought that they should finally get some recognition. We wanted everyone to know about the difference that these phenomenal men and women have been making in the lives of our young people every day.”
Obama went on to tell the assembled counselors, “You see the promise in each of your students. You believe in them even when they can’t believe in themselves, and you work tirelessly to help them be who they were truly meant to be. ... These men and women show them that those kids matter; that they have something to offer; that no matter where they’re from or how much money their parents have, no matter what they look like or who they love or how they worship or what language they speak at home, they have a place in this country.
“And as I end my time in the White House, I can think of no better message to send our young people in my last official remarks as first lady,” she said.
The experience was inspiring and rejuvenating, Mills said.
“I thought it was really powerful, and I was really excited because the little ones at Austintown Elementary live-streamed her message, so they were able to see me as well as hear her message,” she said.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me – for anyone, really.”