WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Thursday personally thanked what he called "a remarkable group of Americans" for answering the call of service to their fellow citizens.
In the East Room of the White House, flanked by life-size portraits of George and Martha Washington, Obama said the 13 recipients of the 2011 Presidential Citizens Medal, one of the nation's highest civilian honors, were "united by the choices they made" to help others in need.
Ida Martin of Bluffton, S.C., created an organization to assist residents in her economically struggling community, including families with children, the disabled and senior citizens.
Clarence Lee Alexander, a Fort Yukon, Alaska, tribal leader, led efforts clean up the Yukon River and protect Alaska's environment, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Roberto Perez, a Miami social worker and pastor, is president of a nonprofit group that has helped 7 million people learn to read in 22 countries around the globe.
"We have to do more than just hand out medals," Obama said, "we have to follow their example."
Obama noted that on Sunday he'd helped dedicate a new memorial to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. In King's final speech, on April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed in Memphis, Tenn., King retold the story of the good Samaritan. Obama noted that King said many walked past an injured man lying in the road, worrying what would happen to them if they stopped to help. The people sitting behind Obama were good Samaritans, he said.
"They could have made excuses for doing nothing," Obama said. "Instead, they stopped to help."
Some of the recipients were called to service by tragic events, including Roger Kemp, of Leawood, Kan., whose 19-year old daughter, Ali, was brutally murdered by an attacker.
"They just said to me, well, it happens," Kemp told The Kansas City Star. "I said who the heck says it happens? Let's put a stop to it."
And that's what Kemp did. His first two-hour self-defense class began with a dozen people. The classes now bring in 150 to 200 young girls and women.
Another medal recipient, Janice Langbehn, of Lacey, Wash., was on vacation with her family in 2007 when her partner, Lisa Pond, became ill and was taken to a Miami hospital. Langbehn was denied access to Pond, who later died of a brain aneurysm without her family by her side.
Langbehn's story drew the attention of Obama, who issued an executive order in January requiring any hospital that accepts federal Medicare or Medicaid funds to give gay and lesbian couples equal visitation rights.
"As a father and husband, I can't begin to imagine the grief that they must have felt in that moment," Obama said of Kemp and Langbehn. "But they refused to let that anger define them. And thanks to their work, there are parents and partners who will never have to go through what they went through."
For the winners, coming to the White House to be thanked by the president was an honor by itself.
Langbehn, 43, said news of her medal was "pretty surreal."
"I didn't know I was nominated," she said. "To hear that in just four and a half years I could be honored with people who've been doing advocacy their whole lives, it's mind-blowing. This is what I've tried to teach my children: When something horrible happens to you and you know it's wrong on every level, you have to speak up. You have to speak up until somebody hears you."
Martin, 84, who founded Bluffton Self Help in her garage in 1987, planned to hug the president, who she called "my Moses."
"I'm not going to ask for permission because he might say no," Martin told the Beaufort Gazette.
But Martin had nothing to worry about. After Obama presented her with her medal Thursday, he hugged her.
(Steve Rothaus of The Miami Herald contributed to this article from Miami. Joe Lambe of The Kansas City Star contributed from Kansas City, Mo. Rachel Heaton of the Beaufort Gazette contributed from Bluffton, S.C.)
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