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WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama says it is important to think about where you've come from and how you can give back.
That's one of the messages she carried with her Tuesday on a visit to a local social services center, where she got down on the carpeted floor to read with toddlers and, separately, chatted up a group of teenagers who later said they were surprised to have received such a high-profile visitor.
Asked why she came to Mary's Center, Mrs. Obama said she was raised to believe that "what you get, you give back." She said she wants to do that in Washington, as she did when living in her native Chicago, now that the District of Columbia is her home.
She touched on her middle-class upbringing and told them how each of her successes helped her become a more confident person.
"I have in some way been where you are," she told the 13 teenagers who sat with her in chairs arranged in a circle. She said she thinks it's important for young kids "to see me, not the first lady, to see that there is no magic to me sitting here."
After public school in Chicago, Mrs. Obama graduated from Princeton and Harvard universities, became a corporate lawyer and most recently was an executive vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
The students, all of whom participate in teen programs at the center, also asked what the government will do to improve schools and support families, what it's like to be first lady and about street violence. Mrs. Obama said they were lucky to have access to Mary's Center, which for more than 20 years has provided health care and educational and social services to families in the Adams Morgan neighborhood.
Since becoming first lady three weeks ago, Mrs. Obama has embarked on a listening tour through the federal bureaucracy. She has stopped by the departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Interior to meet and thank the federal employees for their work.
Some of the teenagers said they didn't know she was coming, but were glad to see her when she walked in.
"She was very comfortable. She talked to everybody as if she knew them," Elizabeth Carballo, 16, said after the first lady had departed in her motorcade.
Marvin Hernandez, also 16, said the visit shows Mrs. Obama wants to take the initiative.
"She wants to hear from us. And that our voices will be heard," he said.
Before the give-and-take with the teenagers, Mrs. Obama abandoned her chair and sat down on a purple rug in the center's day-care room to read "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" with a group of nine toddlers.
"Hello, little people. What's going on," she said as she entered the room. "First of all my name is Michelle and I'm married to the president of the United States. Do you know his name?"
"Barack Obama," shouted 5-year-old Anais Ngako.