The White House announced today that, on Friday, President Barack Obama will present the 2012 Citizens Medal to 18 Americans, including two Latinas—the Puerto Rican teacher slain in Newtown, Conn., Victoria Soto, and Maria Gomez, founder of Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C.
“It is my distinguished honor to award these individuals the 2012 Citizens Medal for their commitment to public service,” the president said in a statement released by the White House. “Their selflessness and courage inspire us all to look for opportunities to better serve our communities and our country.”
The Citizens Medal is the United States’ second-highest civilian honor, behind the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Victoria Soto: The teacher who died protecting her students
When the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., took place, Soto was heralded as one of the heroines. According to reports of the shooting, when Soto realized there was a gunman in the school, she hid her students in closets and cabinets and told the shooter they were in the gym. When he didn’t believe her, she jumped in front of the gun to shield the children from his bullets. The story was bittersweet for many—her actions were a source of pride for her family and Puerto Ricans both in the States and on the Island, but her death broke many hearts.
The other teachers who gave their lives protecting the children as well will also receive the medal posthumously. In addition, Soto’s brother Carlos will attend Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday as a guest of Connecticut Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro.
Maria Gomez: A Colombian immigrant living the American Dream
Gomez is the founder of Mary’s Center, an organization dedicated to “the delivery of health care, education and social services,” according to their site. “We embrace culturally diverse communities to provide them with the highest quality of care, regardless of ability to pay.”
She arrived with her mother to the United States from Colombia when she was 13 years old. She graduated from both Georgetown University and the University of California at Berkeley—with a bachelor’s in nursing and a master’s in public health, respectively—and founded her organization in 1988.
Over the years she has received recognition from many news outlets and organizations, and even the Obamas. Mary’s Center was chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama for her first official visit to a non-profit, and Gomez has been a guest in the White House, when she was invited to the state dinner in honor of Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
On the Citizens Medal
Over 6,000 public nominations were submitted since the award was opened for nominations in April of last year. It was established under the watch of President Richard Nixon in 1969. According to the White House, “President Obama is recognizing Americans whose work has had a significant impact on their communities but may not have garnered national attention.”