SOUTH SHORE — When former President Barack Obama made a surprise visit to more than 200 volunteers at the Obama Foundation’s Training Days program, Briana Brown got more than a quick photo.
“I looked at his security and said, 'I need five minutes with Obama,'” said Brown, 23.
Like everyone else, Brown shook hands and posed for a professional photo, but she also stole a hug. Fortunately, he hugged her back, she said.
“I said my name and ‘Nice to meet you,’ and we took the picture, and then I just immediately hugged him, and that’s when the photographer took more pictures,” she said. The president said, "This is what she meant" by needing five minutes.
The South Shore native was a volunteer peer adviser. She and the other volunteers were at the Gary Comer Youth Center in Grand Crossing late last month facilitating the program when Obama surprised the gymnasium full of young people who were gathered to discuss civic engagement and ways they could positively impact their communities.
Obama spoke to the group about the foundation’s Training Day initiative and why he and former first lady Michelle Obama created it, to empower the next generation of young people to create change.
Brown said she was expecting Chance the Rapper, not the former president. Before the event started, she and the other volunteers were told to arrive early and be seated. Many people speculated the Chatham born, Grammy Award-winning artist would pop in and take some photos with them.
And because Brown has already met Chance, she said she was the only one calmly sitting down. She noticed people standing up with phones in their hands, but she didn’t see who had walked into the room right away. When she saw Obama, though, she jumped up.
“I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to jump for joy,” Brown said. “I just got out of my seat and walked close to the rope.”
The volunteers were instructed to get in line and told not to take selfies with him because there was a professional photographer.
For Brown, just being in the same room as the country’s first black president was enough to make the moment unforgettable, she said.
“Even though he’s not president anymore, he took time out to make sure his foundation created something so significant to us, and that will impact not only our communities, but communities all over the world,” she said. “It’s unbelievable. He and Michelle are working closely to help empower us to be the voice and change for our communities. This gives us hope.”
She attended the Obama Foundation’s summit both Tuesday and Wednesday.
Brown said she began participating in programs offered through the Comer Youth Center in 2008. She credits the center’s resources and guidance for her success. Like Obama, Brown said she also is passionate about education, something that was sparked as a teen.
She was a member of Gary Comer College Prep’s first graduating class in 2012. From there she earned her bachelor’s degree in English studies from Illinois State University. She now works in the Department of Student Affairs at National Louis University and is wants to obtain her master's degree in student affairs. She said her goal is to become a president of a university.
The Gary Comer Youth Center’s director, Ayoka Mota Samuels, said she’s proud of Brown, calling her a role model.
“Breana is an example of what we want to see happen when we think about our mission for young people to graduate from high school ready for college and career,” Samuels said. “She has definitely taken advantage of all the resources that the Gary Comer Youth Center and our whole Comer education campus has had to offer. I’m quite honored to know her.”
Brown was one of five young people from the youth center to participate in the Obama Foundation’s training day program. Samuels said it was a great opportunity for them, and she hoped they left feeling empowered and with the understanding that they can create change now and they don’t have to wait until they’ve accomplished more in life, she said.
“It’s cool and great that this kind of activity happened on the South Side of Chicago,” she said. “So many people have bad things to say about us. Well, look at us. We had the former president here. On the South Side, our communities are valuable, and that kind of event really shows the rest of world what we already know: This is a great place to be.”