CHICAGO — A solemn first lady Michelle Obama delivered a sober message to the city's business leaders Wednesday, recounting how hard it is for the city's youth to escape the epidemic of violence and noting how closely her upbringing matched that of many of them.
"For me, this is personal," she said. "My story would not be possible without this city."
At times getting emotional in front of the crowd of 800 people at the Hilton Chicago, where she was helping Mayor Rahm Emanuel raise $50 million for anti-violence initiatives, Obama said her childhood was similar to that of Hadiya Pendleton. Hadiya was a King College Prep student who was killed a week after returning from President Barack Obama's inauguration in January.
"Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her ... but I got to grow up," the first lady said.
For her, the difference was "I had adults who pushed me. ... I had community that supported me and a neighborhood where I felt safe. That was the difference between becoming a lawyer, a mother and being shot dead at the age of 15."
Choking up, she said, ''Hadiya was clearly on her way to doing something worthy in her life."
Obama spoke about growing up on the South Side, where many kids end up becoming victims or turning to violence, and noted that only a few blocks can make a difference in the "city of neighborhoods."
"The opportunities available to a child growing up in one neighborhood in this city might be vastly different than a child growing up just five blocks away," she said. "That difference can shape their lives and life prospects from the moment they are born."
Obama touched on the the reality many students live with, even when walking to and from school. Kids in Chicago don't walk in groups for fear of being mistaken for being in a gang and walk down the middle of the street so they can best keep an eye on their surroundings, she said.
"At the end of the day, our kids keep waking up in neighborhoods where they don't feel safe," she said.
Speaking to a crowd that included Hadiya's family, Obama urged business leaders to come together to help city kids get the resources they need to succeed and escape the violence.
The anti-violence initiative has gotten off to a successful start, officials said. Allstate CEO Tom Wilson said after only 60 days, Emanuel's public safety action committee had raised $33 million.
With access to computer labs, libraries and basketball courts, "Maybe more of our young people would be in classrooms and jobs instead of in custody," she said. "Resources matter. They matter."
Obama then met students at West Englewood's Harper High School Wednesday — where 29 former or current students have been shot in the last year, eight of them fatally.
At the school, the students gave Obama a standing ovation. She appeared relaxed and asked the students why they were "acting shy" as she waved hello and greeted them.
The first lady was expected to speak with Harper students "to hear firsthand about their experiences," according to the White House media office. She left the school around 5 p.m.
"She motivated me a lot with what she said," said Deonte Tanner, 18, a Harper senior who plans to attend Marquette University this fall. "She talked about how the best things in life are hard to come by like an education and that if we [Harper students] stay strong, we could conquer anything that comes our way."
Added Harper senior Shonte Ward, 18: "She told us how she grew up on the South Side, and while it was not as violent as it is now, it was still dangerous for her. I can't wait to go home and tell my mom that I met the first lady. She is a strong, black woman."
At the luncheon, business and civic leaders said Wednesday they hope increased investment by the city's business sector will change the fate of children like Hadiya.
Allstate's Wilson, who is heading Emanuel's newly-created committee, urged the city's business sector to step in and help "break this cycle of violence."
"Who know how many wonder drugs have not been invented because children don't reach their full potential? How many great plays won't be written?" Wilson asked the crowd attending the luncheon. "Until we stop the violence, Chicago's future will die one bullet at a time."
Wilson said the $50 million from the private sector would help fund "proven programs" aimed at violence intervention and prevention at a time when too many public dollars must be spent on responding to violence.
Jim Reynolds, CEO of Loop Capital, is also spearheading the new public safety action committee, a "non-profit, independent organization" that will dole out the $50 million to existing and new programs. Reynolds, who grew up on the city's South Side, said increased funding for proven programs will help children who are too "entrenched" in Chicago violence to "visualize" alternative to life on the streets.
Reynolds said it was time for Chicago's business community to look at the "kind of future we want for our great city.
"I'm talking about a Chicago where these racially segregated divisions between the North Side [and] Downtown versus the South Side and the West Side are not felt anymore," Reynolds said.
The first lady's visit follows a push by her husband's administration to get gun control legislation passed soon. Senate Democrats and Republicans reportedly are close to a deal that would expand the federal background check requirements for gun purchases.
The violence in Chicago repeatedly has been mentioned by President Obama in his plea for stricter gun laws, particularly the slaying of Hadiya, who was shot in the same Kenwood neighborhood as the Obamas' Chicago home.
During her speech, Obama was met with strong applause when she said her husband's gun reforms "deserve a vote in Congress."
Michelle Obama last visited Chicago to launch her new fitness initiative, "Let's Move!" in February. Weeks earlier, she attended the funeral for Hadiya, whose family has been part of a national campaign against gun violence.