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First Lady Honors Top After-School Arts Programs

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages(WASHINGTON) -- The nation's top extracurricular programs for the arts and humanities were honored Monday in an awards ceremony at the White House. First lady Michelle Obama presided over the event, as the honorary chair of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Twelve programs from around the country were recognized for what Mrs. Obama called "those pushing and inspiring" children, "revealing their boundless promise, and teaching them to believe in themselves."

The committee's National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards are the country's highest honor for organizations that cater to education in the arts. Many of the awards recipients focused on serving low-income communities.

"You make all this happen on shoestring budgets; you do it in unbelievable ways, in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable," the first lady said. "And I know that you put a lot of late nights and long hours into giving these kids opportunities worthy of their promise."

Obama told the room of program organizers and their star pupils that in addition to building a child's self-esteem, the team work and problem-solving skills offered by the programs had real-world applications students would use in college and the workplace.

"That’s why it is so critical that we preserve arts education in our schools," she said. "It is absolutely critical because we know how important it is for our children’s development.  We all know."

Several programs stood out for originality. One program out of San Fernando, Calif., paired Grammy award-winning band Mariachi Los Camperos with students of primarily Mexican descent in instructional experience to preserve the genre.

Dressed in bright blue mariachi attire, the youths performed in the East Room with a backdrop painting of George Washington.

It's been "an amazing experience," the group's violinist later told ABC News. Sixteen-year-old Cesar Zuniga has dreams of Stanford University but wants to bring the genre with him.

"At first I wasn't sure if this was what I wanted to do," he said. "But after I started going to these lessons and all the performances I actually started liking it a lot."

Another program out of Oakland, Youth Radio, provided media arts and journalism training to underserved youths, including internship opportunities. The New York City Urban Debate League was also present for the ceremony. Since 1997 the organization has taught civics and public policy to under-served regional schools.

A Chinese delegation was also recognized. The "100 Dong Songs Program" is dedicated to preserving the culture of the Dong people of western China, whose oral traditions have struggled under globalization.

Monday was the first lady's first public speaking engagement since President Obama won reelection. In her parting remarks she urged the youths to keep the programs alive for the next generation.

"It’s not enough just to receive these gifts and blessings, but to understand that you are blessed and your job now is to pass it on, to find someone in your life that you are going to mentor, that you are going to pull up," she said.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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