BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- First lady Michelle Obama got a star's reception Wednesday in Birmingham, where she met with officials about Alabama's tornado recovery, helped children mix healthy snacks and drummed up donations for her husband's re-election campaign.
At her first stop, Obama praised the efforts of public and private officials to help communities rebound from the tornadoes in 2011 and to prepare for future storms. She referred specifically to public and private storm shelters that federal money is helping to build.
"You all inspire us," Obama told government and nonprofit officials who reported on the state's recovery. "I'm just shining a light."
During the event at McAlpine Recreation Center in the South Pratt community, she sat at a roundtable with Birmingham Mayor William Bell, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell and others to hear updates about the tornadoes that devastated Alabama on April 27, 2011.
Afterward, she walked across to a gymnasium where 78 youngsters, some of them storm survivors, were making healthy snacks, a nod to the first lady's signature cause.
Obama took time to meet with each of the children, offering hugs and encouragement. The children were participating in Camp Noah, a program of the Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota designed to let participants "play, process and heal from their disaster experience."
The children squealed and gave Obama a standing ovation when she entered the gym. Wearing a sleeveless navy dress, a wide black belt and kitten-heeled black shoes, Obama bent down to talk to each child.
"She smelled good, and I love her," said Rakya Holmes, 8, whose godmother's home was destroyed in the storms.
Obama's stop fulfilled a promise to return made when she and President Barack Obama visited Alabama two days after the storms that killed 254 people and destroyed or severely damaged more than 20,000 homes, including almost 500 in the Pratt City area. On that trip, Tuscaloosa was visited and not Birmingham.
The first lady was told tornado recovery is a work in progress. "Progress, while slow, is occurring," said Sewell, a college friend of the first lady's.
Obama asked questions in particular about victims' emotional recovery. "There are people who are still in a state of shock," Bell said. "It's difficult for them to pull their lives together."
Birmingham City Council President Roderick Royal, whose district includes the worst-hit areas of the city, expressed effusive support and thanks to Obama. "We could not possibly get a bigger morale-booster than your presence today," he said.
It was certainly true for the children at Camp Noah, who gushed about meeting the first lady.
"She said, 'What's up?'¤" said Gyasi Hill, 11, of Fairfield. "I said, 'What's up?' It was a happy moment."
Breunna Carter, 9, of Roebuck was so excited she said her head felt hot. "We had to fan her down," said her friend, 9-year-old Ashlie Holifield of Forestdale, who asked the first lady her favorite color. It's olive, Ashlie said.
From Pratt City, the first lady headed to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex for a campaign fundraising reception. General reception tickets were $200 per person, and the cost for attending ranged upward to co-chairs raising as much as $50,000 for the campaign. According to the campaign, 450 tickets were sold.
An enthusiastic crowd packed a hotel meeting room for the event. Bell, state Rep. Merika Coleman and former Gov. Don Siegelman were among those in attendance.
The first lady's speech was delivered with passion, enthusiasm and urgency. She evoked her working-class upbringing and that of the president and said they wanted to continue to champion the middle class in a second term.
"We are doing this for the vision for this country that we all share," she said.
She ticked off a list: People should be able to work hard and build a decent life, to earn a living and send children to good schools, to have security in retirement and affordable health care.
"Folks should not go bankrupt because someone gets sick," she said.
Energetic and passionate, Obama urged the assembled crowd to get involved in the campaign, to talk to neighbors, to enlist more people to the cause.
She warned that this election will be closer than the last one, and that, for supporters, sitting on the sidelines is not an option.
"This election could come down to the last few thousand people we register," she said. She ended with a pep rally feel:
"Are you in?" she shouted.
"Yes." the crowd shouted back.
"No, Are you really in?" she asked, prompting a stronger response.
Elaine Harrington of Tuskegee and Earline Patrick of Bessemer discussed the speech as they walked away. Harrington praised the first lady's "passion and compassion." Both praised her focus on the positive.
"She stayed above the finger-pointing," Patrick said. "She was eloquent and forceful."