Laura Bush is 71, though that’s hard to believe. Born in Midland, Texas, the elegantly coiffed brunette has a demeanor and sparkling presence that seems ageless.
Standing in front of an audience of nearly 400 women at the Country Club At Mirasol in Palm Beach Gardens, Mrs. Bush begins with a sentiment, offering thanks to all for attending the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation’s annual Golden Heart Luncheon and for answering the call to aid sick children around the state. Earlier in the day, she toured one of the Nicklaus Children’s 14 outpatient centers.
“I learned from some of the kids that because of the treatments they’d received, they were back home with their families, laughing at the dinner table and playing outside again,” she says.
Moving on, she covers more personal topics, such as life after the White House, her family, the children’s book she co-authored with her daughter, Jenna Bush Hager, and the legacy of literacy she will bequeath to millions of children, including her two granddaughters, Mila and Poppy Louise.
“I believe everyone deserves a quality education, and a safe and healthy childhood,” she says. “Literacy is an essential foundation for democracy… and I know if every child is educated, our country and our world will be more stable and prosperous.”
A self-described bibliophile, Bush’s love for reading was shaped as a young girl, when she’d accompany her mother to the library to check out children’s books they would read together at home. In 1968, she graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in education and taught second grade for two years at an inner-city school in Dallas. “I wasn’t prepared for the poverty I saw there,” she says.
As dishes are whisked away and coffee is poured at the luncheon, Laura recalls the schoolchildren whose lives touched hers. The students who came to class with their bellies growling, relying on the school’s free breakfasts and lunches as meals.
Her soft, Southern drawl sharpens as she recounts the day she squired a group of second-graders to AstroWorld, an amusement park near the Astrodome. The last child they picked up answered the door dressed in his underwear. Before he could board the bus, she needed his mother’s consent, but she refused to come to the door.
“Helping children like him is one of the greatest challenges of our time,” she says.
She follows with a sequence of alarming statistics, like how more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school annually, the millions of kids who have one or both parents in incarceration, or the unfortunate souls who spend more time alone, or with their peers, than with a family member.
“Young people need us in their lives,” she reminds the silent crowd. “They need to know they’re valued, that someone believes in them, and their success matters.”
In her role as First Lady of the United States, she tirelessly advocated for educational programs like reading, a fundamental she believes all other learning skills are based on. While her achievements are many, the National Book Festival she co-founded in 2001 and “Ready to Read, Ready to Learn,” an initiative aimed at prepping kids for the classroom by reading to them at home, are highlights.
She casts a long glance around then, her smile turns somber. “Many times, I think back to that little boy who didn’t get to go to AstroWorld,” she says. “‘What happened to him?’ I ask myself sometimes.”
She tosses out more queries: Is he still alive? Did he find another teacher who cared for him? Had he graduated from high school or even college? Does he have a job where he’s valued? Or, is he standing by the highway with a cardboard sign or sitting in a joyless, empty room wondering how it all turned out this way?
“My challenge to you is the same one I’ve given myself all these years,” she says. “Never forget that boy. Never forget that one friendly smile, one reading lesson, one consoling touch, one check written, or one busy hour given over to someone who needs you, can make all the difference in the world.”