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Hickory woman to meet Obama; honor should be mutual

By Dannye Romine Powell

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Here’s a story that might inspire you to stop procrastinating.

Mitzi Gellman is a busy woman. She’s head of Habitat for Humanity in Hickory, a single mother of two grown children, an avid photographer, a director on a couple of boards and has an elderly mother in hospice care.

So, from time to time, she puts things off.

A couple of weeks ago, she realized she hadn’t made her annual contributions to some favorite causes. So she clicked on the Charlotte in 2012 website and entered a national contest with her contribution.

Last week, she says, she learned she’s one of six winners.

Her prize? A hotel room in Charlotte, convention credentials for two and a face-to-face with none other than President Barack Obama and Michelle.

“You’re kidding me!” she told Jackie Batemen, who called her with the news from Charlotte in 2012. “I never win anything!”

When she let it soak in, Gellman says she was “over the moon.”

She’ll meet with the First Couple sometime this week, on a so-far-undisclosed day (maybe Wednesday? maybe Thursday?) at a so-far-undisclosed time.

Pedicure? Check. Manicure? Check.

A new black and gray Calvin Klein dress. “Very sophisticated,” she says. “Which is not me.”

Habitat work opened her eyes

Gellman’s concerns typically run much deeper than clothes and colorful nails. Housing for the poor, for example. Affordable health care for all, for another. As well as her mother’s comfort and her children’s educational pursuits (her son is in the School of Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill; her daughter graduated from UNC and is in a UNC Charlotte graduate program in health care administration).

Speaking of kids, which one will she take? Neither, says Gellman. They’re both very political, she says, so it wouldn’t be fair to choose.

Instead, she’s taking a friend, Tami Abernathy, whom she met years ago through her work with Habitat.

Spending 17 years in the world of Habitat will open your eyes to a few things.

Gellman, who’s 53, says she sometimes talks with people who’ve never known anyone too poor to afford health care. She quickly sets them straight, asking them to imagine a person unable to afford a hip replacement, going on day after day in pain, unable to walk.

“I know people like that,” she says. “When you do, you understand the importance of the health care bill.”

Gellman: Needs aren’t partisan

Gellman’s been with Habitat for 17 years, which, she says, gives her perspective on how housing can change lives.

“You watch them go through the entire process from filling out an application (for a Habitat house) to going to the classes they have to attend, to watching them drive that first nail, to the completed house.

“You meet moms when they’re pregnant, and you have the chance to see their kids go to college. It’s amazing,” she says. “It truly is amazing.”

The tough part, Gellman says, is not having enough money to build the houses for all those who need them. Donations in Hickory, she says, are down about 60 percent from 2008.

“Habitat,” she says, “is one of those great organizations that’s not Republican or Democrat. It’s about giving people a hand up, not a handout. It’s about independence.”

And what will she say to Obama?

“I haven’t drilled it down to the details,” she says. “The first thing is to thank him. Thank him for his service. It’s a tough job.”

And if our president knows anything about Mitzi Gellman, he’ll thank her, too.

Powell: 704-358-5230
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