First Lady Michelle Obama talks youth violence at Harper High - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

First Lady Michelle Obama talks youth violence at Harper High

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

First Lady Michelle Obama met with students significantly impacted by violence at Chicago's Harper High School on Wednesday, and talked about youth empowerment.

Authorities said 29 current or former Harper students have been shot in the past year, eight of them fatally. Mrs. Obama met privately with a small group of teens and counselors directly affected by the youth violence.

FULL SPEECH: First lady speaks at youth violence luncheon

Obama said "Hey Harper High" as she walked in at Harper High School on Chicago's South Side. She told the students that she's proud of them and that she wanted to hear what they had to say about their school and community.

The first lady stressed education too, telling the students the best thing they could do in life "is really be serious about education." She told them that if they stay focused they "can make it happen."

Students say their intimate talk became emotional as they and the First Lady shed tears at the stories of survival and hardship in their neighborhood.

She told the students that she grew up in a nearby neighborhood and "there isn't much distance between me and you."

It was an emotional day for Michelle Obama as she spoke about conversations she had as classmates prepared to say goodbye to Hadiya Pendleton earlier this year.

"Today, I want to say the exact same thing to all of you," Obama said. "I want to urge you to come together and do something worthy of Hadiya Pendleton's memory and worthy of our children's future."

One student told FOX 32 News that the visit can only help.

"After school there might be a fight about putting something on Facebook, or just because they don't like each other," he said. "They just go get guns. Other people might talk bit or just leave it alone (in other cities). Here, the violence is just getting worse. I hope something changes because we're just losing kids and it's not fair at all - to their parents or to us."

Senior Donte Tanner says the time his classmates spent with Michelle Obama was the best thing to happen in Englewood in a long time.

"Her being down to earth and so genuine and truthful brought out what politics really should be doing," Tanner says.

Parent Carolyn Collins stood outside Harper High School on Wednesday afternoon as Obama talked with students inside. The 46-year-old woman said her daughter attends the school. Collins says she hopes the first lady's visit to one of the city's more violent neighborhoods will remind the rest of the country what local children go through.

Nearby, 11-year-old Dejuan Cox wasn't quite so hopeful. He said it was nice that the first lady visited, but he thinks the violence will continue. And 11-year-old Kiera Barden waited outside the school too. She said she came to see the first lady because she wrote a report on Obama.

Harper High is located in the city's impoverished Englewood community. Of its approximately 600 students, the majority are considered "low-income." Approximately 22% take special education courses. Most students walking to the school pass vacant lots and boarded-up homes.

Donte Tanner is the class of 2013's valedictorian. He has had perfect attendance all four years and in spite of his surroundings, he's graduating in June with a 4.5 grade point average. He says if life is about choices and he wants to succeed.

"You know, I could let a lot of things be an excuse like other students are going through," Tanner says. "Like, I could say my father, I don't know who that is. I could use that as an excuse to be out here on these streets but I don't. I use that as motivation."

The First Lady also spoke at a luncheon hosted by Mayor Rahm Emanuel before visiting the high school. Mrs. Obama and Emanuel  urged business leaders to donate more money to help the city's at-risk youth.

Emanuel asked the audience at an exclusive luncheon Wednesday in downtown Chicago for help raising $50 million. The mayor wants the private donations for a program he announced earlier this year called Get In Chicago. Two-thirds of that amount has been raised.

"All these kids just need a chance," Emanuel said. "And as I call, to bridge that gap of where they physically are and the promise of the city they can see down in downtown. "

In an often emotional speech, the first lady told the audience that resources matter and the money they give to neighborhood youth programs can save children's lives.

Just in case the message wasn't clear, the audience sat down to a salmon lunch and a card asking for donations. The card had optional boxes to check for donation amounts from $1,000 to $1 million.

With Congress poised to begin debate Thursday on firearms restrictions, the White House is mounting a vigorous push for action this week.

President Barack Obama spoke Monday with families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victims, who have launched a lobbying campaign of their own. Vice President Joe Biden is also promoting the administration's plans this week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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