After a whirlwind trip to Washington, where she sat next to first lady Michelle Obama for the president's State of the Union address, Oak Park resident Misty DeMars was back at home Thursday, making macaroni and cheese for her sons and trying to process this week's events.
DeMars, who lost her job at the Adler Planetarium just after buying a home in May, received the invitation because she wrote to President Barack Obama when her federal unemployment benefits expired in December.
As the president read excerpts from her letter during his speech Tuesday, it wasn't easy to keep calm in her front-row seat, DeMars said.
"I was scared, terrified, but I was proud to be there," she said.
DeMars and her husband, Leighton Taylor, arrived in Washington around noon Tuesday, DeMars said. They met Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez and some of his staff, then attended a reception at the White House before going to the U.S. Capitol for the address.
Her first trip to Washington was also the first time she was away from her sons, ages 1 and 4, for more than a day, she said.
Michelle Obama's calming demeanor made the whole trip easier, DeMars said.
"When I walked up to the first lady, she opened up her arms and gave me the most genuine hug, and instantly put me at ease," she said.
The first lady asked about her children and her employment struggles, DeMars said.
In May, the couple bought a house on North Grove Avenue that neighbors said needed repair. Its front was dilapidated and the yard was overgrown with plants, said Scott Billadeau, who lives across the street. DeMars, who said she grew up in a North Dakota town of about 700 people, said she and her husband have renovated the home themselves.
DeMars, 37, said she came to Illinois to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her recent job, as executive assistant and project manager for Adler, was something she had worked toward her whole life, she said. A week after closing on the house, she lost the job. At the end of December, unemployment benefits ended. DeMars has been looking for work at another nonprofit.
In her letter to the president and Illinois members of Congress, she argued against the notion that people in her position should take any job that's available, she said.
"Six months is not long enough to give up on everything you've worked for," she said.
At the address, DeMars sat between Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden.
DeMars said she was able to speak with President Obama for a couple of minutes after his speech.
"He looked at me in the eye and he said, 'I read your letter,'" she said. "He said, "I bet you didn't think you'd end up here, but I read your letter.'"
Even after writing the letter, she had been reluctant to talk about her experience being unemployed, she said. But he convinced her the story is important.
"When the president calls," she said, "you have to rise to the occasion."
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