WESTMINSTER -- The American Dream may be more difficult to achieve than it used to be, but it is still obtainable.
Just ask former Gov. Madeleine Kunin. After all, she experienced it first-hand.
Kunin addressed about 40 members of the Kurn Hattin Homes for Children's Select Choir on Wednesday to assure them their dreams are valid and to emphasize that education is the key to unlocking their potential. The former governor spoke in the Higbie Auditorium before being serenaded by the Select Choir in the Mayo Lobby and serving as the keynote speaker at a Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce mixer.
While speaking to the students, Kunin was careful to stress a commitment to community service.
"One of the most important things you can do as a citizen is to vote," she said. "And your education here at Kurn Hattin will help you make that decision of who to vote for and what (individual candidates) stand for."
Kunin, who also served as the ambassador to Switzerland and as the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, briefly shared her life's story. She said she was born in Switzerland and her mother brought her and her brother to the United States at the outbreak of World War II. Switzerland remained neutral in the war but Kunin's single mother grew worried because the family was Jewish and Nazi Germany occupied most of the countries in Europe.
Kunin, who served as governor from 1985 to 1991, explained she lived outside New York City before moving to Pittsfield, Mass., and attending the University of Massachusetts on scholarship. She went on to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and worked for the Burlington Free Press before entering politics in the Vermont Legislature. The former governor said she never realized until later in life what it meant to be raised by a single mother and asked the students how many of them were brought up by just one parent. When she saw many hands go up, Kunin said "it shouldn't stop you from doing what you want to do in life."
She also told the students it is possible -- despite what some might say -- to have both a family and a successful career. Kunin then took questions from the students, though she had to ask many of the younger ones to speak up.
"Don't be shy -- because you might be governor someday," she said. In answering the students' questions, Kunin explained that she spent her time as governor focusing on education and the environment and though it was tough the take the criticism the position came with, she thinks her service was well worth it because it tested her abilities.
She then asked the students what they want to be when they grow up and she seemed impressed to get answers that included electrical engineer, U.S. Navy SEAL, a foster mother and president of the United States.
"You can be whatever you want to be," she said, adding that education is a key that opens a lot of doors in life. "And when you open new doors, you never know what's behind it."
The guest of honor was then escorted into the Mayo Lobby, where the select choir sang some songs, including "We Shall Overcome" and "These Green Mountains," the official state song of Vermont. Kunin was visibly enchanted by the performance and afterward told the students it was "the best gift I've ever received."
Kunin was also the keynote speaker at the event hosted by the chamber of commerce. The topic was "Why family-friendly policies are good for employers" and Kunin spoke about how American businesses can prosper due to the benefits they give to employees. She said the United States is only one of three countries (the others being Papua New Guinea and Swaziland) with no national law guaranteeing paid maternity leave. She also said America is the richest nation on the planet but has the highest rate of child poverty in the developed world.
The former governor advocated for universal pre-natal care for pregnant women, paid maternity leave and free early education. She said these efforts would save money in the long-run because there will be lower incarceration rates and more educated individuals to fill in-demand jobs. She mentioned the government must have a role in bettering the national work environment but the private sector can be the model.
Domenic Poli can be reached at email@example.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.2