PAHOKEE — It’s a long road from Padgett Island, a housing project in the rural town of Pahokee, Florida, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., home of our 44th president of the United States.
The two distinct enclaves of Americana may seem like worlds apart, but thanks to a tiny reporter, the two have clearly intersected, spreading excitement all around the world.
Damon Weaver, an 11-year-old 6th grader at Kathryn E. Cunningham/Canal Point Elementary, has demonstrated that with big dreams, hard work and perseverance, it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can make it all the way to the White House!
He made history Aug. 13 by becoming the youngest reporter ever to interview a sitting president.
“I’m still in awe. It hasn’t sunk in yet,” said his mother, 41-year old Regina Weaver, “It’s a lot to take in.”
Leading up to his big opportunity with Obama, the ambitious reporter has scored interviews with some of the world’s most famous people, including Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Caroline Kennedy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, Bishop T.D. Jakes, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Tavis Smiley, Roland Martin, Tom Joyner, Dwyane Wade and many others.
He was even tapped to be a student reporter for the ABC-TV newsmagazine, 20/20, reporting on gun violence in America. He reported on crime in his hometown of Pahokee. The little reporter was thoughtful and thorough.
White House spokesman Corey Ealons said it was easy to think of Damon to help launch President Barack Obama’s back-to-school education initiative.
“The president is scheduled to give a speech to the nation’s school children on September 8, and we thought it would be appropriate if the President had a conversation with one of the preeminent student reporters in the country – Damon Weaver,” Ealons said.
HOW HE DID IT
So just how did Damon get the distinction of being one of the country’s preeminent reporters?
His quest to interview the president started during the presidential campaign when then-Sen. Joe Biden made a campaign stop in Palm Beach County.
Damon’s school principal, LaVoise Taylor Smith, and his broadcasting teacher, Brian Zimmerman, thought it was important for the students to cover the campaign of the possible first African-American president.
Since Damon did so well on the school’s anchor desk, reading his school announcements, he was chosen to be the reporter at the rally.
“We just wanted to bring the campaign to students at our school,” Smith said.
To everyone’s surprise, Damon got the interview with Biden, and thus began his quest to interview the president.
Zimmerman recalled that Damon said that since he’d gotten the interview with the vice-presidential candidate, he now needed to interview the presidential candidate.
He never got the interview with candidate Obama. Instead, the door opened for him after Obama made history by becoming the first African-American president.
As fate would have it, Damon, who only became a reporter eight months ago, was only given two days’ notice to prepare for the interview of a lifetime, Zimmerman said.
The White House communications staff was well aware of Damon’s quest to interview the president. In fact, Ealons had hosted Damon, his mother, his teacher and principal for a tour of the White House in June.
So when the appropriate moment presented itself, the White House reached out to Damon.
On Tuesday, Aug. 11, Zimmerman got an email from the White House, asking if Damon would be available on Thursday, Aug. 13. It wasn’t a certainty.
Finally, late Tuesday, the principal and the teacher got the call they’d been waiting for. Damon’s mother didn’t tell him he was going to interview the president until the day they were leaving for Washington, D.C.
“My mom said, we have to go buy a suit. You’re going to interview the president!” Damon explained.
Later that day, Damon, his mother, and Zimmerman were on a U.S. Airways flight, headed to the nation’s capital for Damon’s big engagement.
The trip wasn’t without its dramatic moments. Damon woke up around 8 a.m. on the morning of the interview, ate a glazed donut for breakfast, went over his questions with his teacher, and headed for the White House.
But on the way from the hotel to the White House, their taxi was involved in an accident, almost delaying their arrival for the big interview!
“I said, ‘Let’s get outta here!” Damon said.
They transferred to another cab and headed on their way. They arrived at the White House, checked in, and went to the Briefing Room, where other reporters were congregating. Then, they were escorted to the Diplomatic Room, reserved for presidents and world leaders.
Damon was told that you customarily stand when the president enters the room. But when the president entered the room, he shook hands with Damon, introduced himself, and immediately complimented Damon on his brand-new suit.
“When I was waiting on him I was kind of nervous, and when I first started the interview I was a little bit nervous,” Damon explained.
But, he said, his nerves calmed down once he got into the 10-minute interview.
His mother, however, couldn’t calm her nerves.
“I was nervous for him!” she said.
Damon had an array of questions, some serious and some just plain funny. He began by talking about serious issues concerning education and crime. Both topics have been dear to Damon ever since he started reporting…eight months ago.
Always concerned about his hometown, he told President Obama his concerns about Pahokee.
“I live in Pahokee, Florida, which is kind of a poor town. What can be done to improve education for students who live in towns like mine?” he asked.
He also asked the president if he had the power to change school lunches. Damon said he would like to see French fries and mangoes added to the school lunch menu.
He also wanted to know what young people could do to make this country better.
The president told him that if young people would just stay in school and work hard, it would make America better.
Damon couldn’t end the interview without asking a serious question about President Obama’s favorite sport: basketball. He wanted to know whether Obama could still dunk, and, if so, if he was willing to face Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade in a pick-up game.
The president admitted that he could no longer dunk.
And all in fun, he asked the president if he wanted to be his “homeboy.”
“When I interviewed Vice President Joe Biden, he became my homeboy. Now that I interviewed you, would you like to become my homeboy?” Damon asked.
Of course, the president said yes, and he congratulated Damon for conducting a great interview.
The next day, Damon held a news conference on the South Lawn of the White House, fielding questions for The Today Show, Good Morning America and The Early Show.
Since the interview, calls and correspondence have come in from all around the world.
The interview is even popular in such faraway places such as Israel, Vietnam, Australia and England.
MR. WEAVER GOES TO WASHINGTON
So how did this young boy, the product of a single-parent home, living in subsidized housing, attending a school where 99 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch, make it all the way to the White House?
Damon’s accomplishments send a clear message, said Smith, Damon’s principal.
“Damon is a great example for young African-American males who may be in places like where Damon resides, to know that it doesn’t
matter who you are, where you come from, or what your circumstances are, you can be anything that you want to be,’’ Smith said.
Getting the opportunity to interview a sitting president is no small feat for any youngster, let alone one from a tiny city of nearly 6,500 residents along the edge of Lake Okeechobee in Florida’s heartland.
The area is populated by sugar cane fields and has a small downtown accessible by a two-lane highway lined with royal palm trees.
Pahokee is roughly 56-percent black, 30-percent Hispanic and 25-percent white, with a per-capita income of about $10,000 a year.
But Damon’s accomplishments have inspired his neighbors and playmates in the Padgett Island development to dream big.
Deborah Morgan, 50, Damon’s next door neighbor, says she and her 3-year-old grandson are proud that Damon, a hometown boy, interviewed the president.
“I’m so proud of him. Very proud,” she quipped as she hung clothes on the clothesline behind her apartment.
Zatavian Morgan, 9, Damon’s playmate, says he now believes he can reach his goal of being a movie producer.
Malik Hall, 11, who also lives in the neighborhood, says people often doubt the young people of today.
“They think we can’t really do anything. After seeing Damon, I can reach my goals too.”
Regina Weaver, Damon’s mother who works as a 911 Emergency operator, never bought into the concept that people who live in her neighborhood can’t amount to anything more than a mere statistic.
She says she knows she lives in a town that’s known for football, having produced numerous NFL players, and crime. But she believes it’s all a myth.
Although she raises Damon and his two brothers and two sisters by herself, she says she always had positive expectations for her children.
Damon, his sister Candace, 15, and brother, Marcus, 14, all have been offered full scholarships to attend Albany State University in Albany, Ga.
Her oldest daughter, Christina, 19, attends Palm Beach Community College, and Regina saved money to send her there. Damon’s oldest brother, Christopher, works at a local grocery store. She’s tried to make Damon’s success a family affair.
“When I can’t make it to accompany Damon on an interview, I send one of the older kids so they can get the experience, too,” she explains.
“I’m proud of all of my kids. I’m proud, but we still have a road to travel. They’re still young.”
Damon’s maternal grandmother, Lauretta Young, says Damon has achieved a milestone.
“And this is a milestone for me, too,’’ Young said. “To be here, to see the first African-American president and to have my grandson to get to interview him. Words cannot express how I feel.”
So what’s next for Damon?
He has many requests for appearances and interviews, and will be a guest on the Tyra Banks show in September.
As for interviews, he wants to interview some pro football players. But we may not have seen the last of him at the White House.
“There may be other opportunities in the future where we would like Damon to participate in other press events we’re having here at the White House,” Ealons said.
As for Damon, he says he wants to be a journalist, a football player, and an “astronaut pilot” when he grows up.
ON THE NET
All of Damon’s interviews can be viewed on YouTube.com/CanalPointKECTV
Photo: Damon Weaver, 11, interviews President Barack Obama Aug. 13 in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. The room is usually set aside for the president to greet heads of state.