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Michelle Obama touring South Side youth center with NATO spouses

Airrishaun Sykes displays Strawberry Basil Vinaigrette Culinary program Gary Comer Youth Center First Lady Michelle Obam(right)  Mrs. Valerie Trierweiler

Airrishaun Sykes, displays Strawberry Basil Vinaigrette in Culinary program at Gary Comer Youth Center to First Lady Michelle Obama (right) and Mrs. Valerie Trierweiler of France as Mrs. Obama hosted NATO leaders' spouses at the Gary Comer Youth Center on the South Side of Chicago, Sunday, May 20, 2012 . | John H. White~Sun-Times.

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Updated: July 1, 2012 12:40PM

When first lady Michelle Obama decided to show off her city to visiting NATO dignitaries, there would be, of course, the fancy lunch of Tuscan kale and oxtail, and a soiree at the Art Institute.

But she didn’t forget where she came from.

She put the South Side on the world stage Sunday as she took her fellow first ladies of NATO on a tour of the Gary Comer Youth Center — about a mile from where she was raised.

“I brought them here because I’m so proud of where I grew up, and I wanted to show everyone some of the wonderful things happening on the South Side,” Obama said.

“You all are the reason why I’m here today, and you’re the reason why I brought these very important ladies from around the world here to this center,” Obama told a group of young people. “I brought them here to see just how amazing you all are. I want them to see you all.”

“I see so much of myself in all of you young people, I really do,” Obama told the crowd of roughly 200 kids and parents, staff and community officials at the youth center, named after the late founder of Lands’ End.

She praised the kids and the center at 7200 S. Ingleside, which offers children everything from academic tutoring to a “Youth Urban Agriculture Program” featuring a rooftop garden. It even offers a recording studio.

The six first ladies of NATO got some insight into Obama’s background as she emphasized to kids that what you’re made of matters more than where you come from when it comes to success.

“I grew up just like you. Same background. My family didn’t have a lot of money growing up. Neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, and most of the folks in my neighborhood didn’t get a chance to, either.”

“There were also well meaning, but sometimes misguided folks who questioned whether someone with my background could get in to the kinds of colleges I dreamed of attending,” Obama told the group. “And sometimes I’d save those folks the trouble and raise those questions of doubt in my own head, lying awake at night worrying about whether I had what it took to succeed. But I decided to just focus, to push the haters out, kick the doubters out of my head and instead what I did was work really hard,” she said, drawing a few praises of “yes” from the crowd.

When those college acceptance letters started rolling in — Princeton University as an undergraduate and later Harvard Law School — she realized her class status mattered little.

“With every acceptance letter I received, I realized that it didn’t matter where I was from, didn’t matter how much money my family had; what mattered was how deeply I was willing to believe in myself,” she said.

“That’s something I want to emphasize with you today.”

After greeting the six first ladies at the center in the Grand Crossing neighborhood on Sunday morning, Obama met with kids in the agriculture and culinary programs before checking out a hip-hop cardio exercise class.

“You know I’d be all up in this if we weren’t doing lunch,” she told the class.

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