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AmeriCorps member shares story with President Obama

By Soyia Ellison

©Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros

When AmeriCorps member Regina Best heard she might be going to the White House on April 12 to speak about her experiences with the Corps, her first question was, “Will I get to meet the President?”

She was told it wasn’t likely.

So you can imagine her surprise when, as she was halfway through sharing her story with a roomful of White House officials, Barack Obama walked through the door.

“I literally gasped for breath,” she said. “I was trying to stand up as fast as I could, but my knees were wobbly because I was in shock.”

She heard the person next to her say, “Breathe, breathe, breathe.”

Best, who serves with Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, was one of a dozen AmeriCorps members — and the only one serving with Habitat — invited to speak about AmeriCorps’ transformative impact on members and the communities they serve.

She was chosen largely because of her history: Best, 40, is an Air Force veteran who served as a chef during her seven years of active and reserve duty. After she left the military, she took a job as an assistant chef at a catering company. But after she lost that job, she eventually found herself homeless. She was staying at the Salvation Army shelter when she decided to volunteer with Habitat. She so appreciated the opportunity to give back that she signed up for AmeriCorps.

That’s the story Best had just started telling when the President walked into the room. After he shook hands with everyone, he asked her to start over from the beginning. She concluded her story by saying that she hopes to someday build her own house and run a catering business out of it.

Obama suggested it might be better to keep her home and business separate.

“I told him I wanted to live and work in the same building, like he does,” she said. “He got a good chuckle out of that.”

Obama listened to the AmeriCorps members’ stories of service for about 45 minutes and then took them on a tour of the Oval Office. He showed them the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Abraham Lincoln. He showed them his desk. Then he showed them a contraption in a glass box — an early version of the telegraph, which he jokingly referred to as the first iPhone.

“We all cracked up laughing,” Best said.

As the meeting wound down, Best asked if she could have a hug. The President obliged. You can see that moment in this White House video, about 11 seconds in.

Two weeks later, Best is still flying high.

“It was just crazy amazing,” she said. “It still feels like a dream.”

The downside — if you can call it that — is that it’s left her feeling even more confused about what she should do when her service year ends.

In addition to serving with AmeriCorps, Best has been in school finishing her bachelor’s degree in culinary management. She’ll graduate later this year. But does she want to pursue some culinary job possibilities that have arisen in Hawaii, or stay with Habitat and AmeriCorps?

Driving by houses she has helped build from the ground up gives her a sense of fulfillment she’s never had before.

“That kind of satisfaction is so much more than the temporary feeling I used to get when I cooked a meal at a restaurant and would see the plates coming back empty,” she said. “I liked that feeling, but this is a more permanent thing — these are lifelong changes. That’s what’s making me feel torn. I love to cook. I’ve been cooking since I was 9. But working with Habitat for Humanity has changed my life.

“AmeriCorps is calling me.”

Read more of Best’s life story, or more about the AmeriCorps White House visit.