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President Carter visits Panorama City school

October 25, 2010 |  7:20 pm

Yessenia Diaz hadn't been born when Jimmy Carter became the 39th president of the United States.

But that didn't dampen her enthusiasm when the former president visited St. Genevieve High School on Monday.

Yessenia and 1,200 other students, family members and faculty stood and cheered when Carter walked into the gym, where he spent half an hour speaking, taking questions and nurturing an unlikely relationship stretching across 3,000 miles to Plains, Ga.

"I feel really fortunate and empowered to be able to see the president," Yessenia, 15, said after Carter was ushered out to the school choir's rendition of "Midnight Train to Georgia."

"He's a big influence," she said. "Everything he stands for, like peace and helping the homeless, I'm all about that. This is something I'll always remember."

It was also an event that Carter said he'd always remember, telling the students they attend the best high school in America.

"I love the partnership we've formed between the people of my community in Plains and the community of this school," Carter said. "It's one of the highlights of my life to be here with you."

The unlikely relationship with Carter began about five years ago after Principal Daniel Horn and a group of students traveled to Atlanta for a conference on character education and then decided to visit Plains to hear the former president speak.
A group of students and teachers filmed a documentary about Carter and his presidency in 2006; and a few years later, the school performed a production of “Singing in the Rain” at the Plains High School auditorium that was attended by Carter and his wife, Rosalynn.
Carter has lauded the school’s academic achievements and its innovative curriculum that stresses character development and described the school’s choir as one of the best he’s ever heard.
Last year, he singled out the school’s dance teams and choir to perform at his 85th birthday party held at the Rylander Theatre in Americus, Ga. When the school learned he’d be visiting Los Angeles on a tour to promote his new book, “White House Diary,” Horn prevailed on the former president  to drop by the campus. 

Carter was visibly touched at the choir's rendition of "Prayer of St. Francis" and locked arms and swayed when the school's seniors surrounded him in a circle and offered prayers.

Horn said students were fortunate and grateful to meet a historical figure who helped shape the world.

"For our kids to meet someone like him goes a lot further than reading about him in a history book," Horn said.

-- Carla Rivera

Photo: Jimmy Carter shakes the hand of Justin Zavala, 4, as his mother, Maria Zavala, holds the child during the former president's visit to St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times