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Words that matter: Loudoun teen earns White House invite

photoBelmont Ridge Middle School student Phoebe Lisle wrote a letter to President Obama the day of the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. “They had their whole life ahead of them. Now it is gone, their life, their hopes, and their dreams, vanished,” Lisle wrote. Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny

What would Phoebe Lisle do without her brother Beckett? Who would she lovingly pick on? And who would pick on her in return?

This is all Lisle, a seventh-grader at Belmont Ridge Middle School in Ashburn, could think about in the aftermath of the heart-wrenching tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary – a shooting massacre that left 20 students, 6- and 7-year-olds, dead inside the school.

Beckett Lisle is barely older than those students who died at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn.

Just as President Barack Obama can’t protect every child in the U.S. from gun violence, Phoebe Lisle can’t unequivocally protect her little brother. But what Lisle could do on Dec. 14, the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, was write a letter to the president. She wrote an honest and touching note scribbled in sloppy, middle-school handwriting to the White House. (Lisle will readily admit her unsightly penmanship.) It wasn’t the aesthetics of Lisle’s letter that mattered, it was the content.

“I hate to think that kids not much younger than myself were shot,” Lisle wrote to President Obama. “I am sad to know that they never got to say goodbye to their moms, dads, brothers, sisters, pets, friends and everything else.”

“You need to make a plan to end this,” the seventh-grader urged President Obama. “Because I know that if I came home from school to find out my third-grade brother died because of someone else’s angriness [sic], I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

Surely the letter would get lost in the ocean of mail that arrives at the White House, the Lisles thought. Thousands and thousands of letters pass through the Pennsylvania Avenue mansion each day. Even more arrive during holidays and, sadly, times of national devastation.

So Phoebe Lisle, 13, didn’t expect her correspondence to have an impact of any kind, but she was compelled to write it nevertheless.

Someone did read her words, however. The right person read them. And because of that letter, Phoebe Lisle found herself sitting in the same White House room as President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and a swarm of reporters on Jan. 16.

Out of the thousands of students who wrote to the president following Sandy Hook, Phoebe Lisle was one of six invited to the White House for a front-row seat to the president’s much-hyped gun-control press conference. During the event, Obama announced, among other measures, his support for laws requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales, reinstating and strengthening the assault weapons ban, restoring the 10-round limit on ammunition magazines, ending the freeze on gun violence research and broadening mental health treatment and education.

photoPhoebe and Beckett Lisle of Lansdowne, ages 13 and 9 respectively, enjoyed a tour of the White House on Jan. 16. The Lisle family was invited to attend President Barack Obama’s press conference on gun control after Phoebe wrote a letter to the president the day of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Photo Courtesy/Jenny Lisle

A daughter opening doors

When Jenny Lisle, Phoebe’s mom, received a call at her Lansdowne home Jan. 10 from a representative of the White House, she thought it was a telemarketer.

Jenny Lisle laughingly said she was “very rude and flippant” to the person on the other end of the line.

“Because we just get so many solicitors,” she said.

This rare solicitation – an invitation to arguably the most famous house in the world – was a welcome surprise.

“It was scary to me … how I didn’t know what was going to happen at the White House,” Phoebe Lisle said.

The Belmont Ridge student was accompanied to the president’s home by her parents Jenny and Kit and, of course, Beckett.

Being just feet away from Obama and Biden and receiving a deluxe guided tour of the historic complex was a thrill for Phoebe Lisle. But the highlight? The highlight, she said only half-kidding, was meeting Bo, the first family’s 4-year-old Portuguese Water Dog, who “just trots around the house like any other dog.”

“‘Bo’s, like, more popular than the president around here for some of the visitors. Because he’s not Democratic or Republican – everybody loves him,’” Phoebe Lisle recalled a White House groundsman telling her.

Reflecting on the experience, Jenny Lisle at one point fought back tears – one can only assume tears of pride.

“It’s one thing for you to try to open doors for your children. It’s a whole other ballgame when your daughter is constantly opening doors for you,” she said.

Hearing those words from her mom, while “kind of overwhelming,” still “felt good,” Phoebe Lisle said.

And the Loudoun County teenager is keeping a youthful optimism when it comes to the president and Congress seeing through measures to reduce gun violence.

“I hope you put an end to this soon, I believe in you and I know you will,” Phoebe Lisle wrote to the president. “I realize you are very busy, but this a problem that really needs to be fixed.”

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