san pedro valley news-sun
Sepp and Lisa Sprietsma are still reeling in disbelief after sharing “an extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime experience” as guests at President Barack Obama’s home in Chicago.
On Aug. 12, the couple spent five hours at the President’s Chicago home in Hyde Park, where they were invited to his 51st birthday party after winning a contest.
“I am still in shock that this whole thing with the President occurred,” said Sepp Sprietsma, a Pomerene resident, who says he was selected because he is an Obama campaign donor who entered a contest. “I donate to the campaign in very small amounts – anywhere from $3 to $10 - a couple of times a month. When it comes to grassroots donors, I’m definitely a blade of grass,” he joked. “One of the times I donated, I unwittingly entered myself into a contest to meet the President, where a guest and I would spend an afternoon with him at his family home in Chicago.” Sprietsma was one of two contest winners selected for the gathering. The second was Kalestine Butler, a pharmacist from Orlando, Fla., who brought her sister, Karen Foster as her guest.
As winners of the Barack’s Birthday contest, the four mingled on the lawn of Obama’s Chicago home, where they met about 30 other guests, mostly friends, family members and campaign donors, Sprietsma said. “The entire experience was just amazing. I hardly know where to start when I tell people about it, or when it’s going to sink in, if ever. We live on a 26-acre farm in Pomerene with horses and chickens. We don’t have TV reception, so we don’t have cable, CNN or Fox, or any of the mainstream media. I’m not sure if this made it easier for us, or even more nerve wracking once we were told we had been selected.”
The Sprietsmas and two other guests waited for the President’s arrival in the backyard of his upscale home, where Lisa recalls how nervous all of them were. “Meeting the president was exciting, but I really didn’t believe this was going to happen until it really happened,” she said. “Once we had gone through all the security checks, were standing in his backyard in Hyde Park, and heard the helicopters and police escorts, I finally believed we were going to meet him. He seemed to know we were nervous and was way more personable and friendly than I was expecting. I’m at a loss for words. It was an incredible experience.”
Until the moment President Obama appeared around a trellis in his manicured backyard, with a cheerful, “Hello, and welcome to my home,” Sepp Sprietsma said the whole experience seemed surreal. “He was all by himself, no secret service surrounding him, no dignitaries. It was like someone was literally having a birthday party for the President, and we were his friends.”
Sepp and Lisa Sprietsma were flown to Chicago on Aug. 11 after receiving five days notice they had been selected for the event. They were greeted at the airport by an Obama campaign volunteer, were treated to a tour of the city and were chauffeured from the hotel to the President’s home the next day, where they spent the afternoon and early evening with Obama and other guests. “It truly was a thrill to meet him, something I never would have imagined happening to us,” Sprietsma said. “He knew our names, what we do for a living and he asked about our kids. It was like he was having friends over from across the street. He knew enough about us to be conversational, was cordial and completely at ease with us.”
When Sepp Sprietsma told the President he would have loved for his two children to be there to meet him, Obama immediately requested a notepad and wrote a personal note to Maria, 13 and Liam, 9. “While he was writing the note, I noticed that he’s left-handed,” Sprietsma smiled. “He spent a good 15 minutes talking to us about our kids and just learning about us. Nothing about the campaign was mentioned during that time.”
After the private chat with the four contest guests, Obama addressed the entire group and made impromptu comments about the economy and other issues, Sprietsma said. “He held a question and answer session with eight members of the media that were at the event. We were there on the day that Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, and one of the reporters framed his question about Ryan negatively,” Sprietsma recalled. “At that point, the President stepped in and cut him off. He said he has worked with Paul Ryan, knows him professionally and, while they may have different views, has tremendous respect for him.”
Following the group address, Obama returned to the four contest winners and spoke to them again. “He left about an hour after that,” Sprietsma recalls. “He shook our hands and left with an entourage of secret service.”
But prior to his departure, Sprietsma invited the President to visit the family farm in Pomerene. “He smiled and said something like, ‘Thank you Sepp, I look forward to seeing you there.’ I also thanked him for his service. Meeting the President of the United States truly was an incredible experience.”
After returning to the hotel, the Sprietsmas were “literally giddy” with excitement. What happened next was another chapter in the couple’s trip, something totally unexpected, but equally memorable.
“We stepped into the elevator with five veterans, three men and two women, all of whom were visibly, profoundly wounded. These veterans had terrible, life-changing injuries. They could see that my wife and I were really giddy about something, so they asked us what we were so excited about. Those five veterans were the first people to hear about our time with the president.”
The veterans, Sprietsma said, were in Chicago for a Wounded Warriors conference that was being held at the hotel.
As he described what happened next, Sprietsma choked up, his eyes filling with tears. “I told them I would have given up my time with the President to allow them that same opportunity. Obviously, meeting the veterans was not part of the trip, nor was it the big story, but I felt it completely overshadowed the time we had with the President. It really did. Being able to thank them for their service and sacrifice and realizing they don’t get thanked enough for all they do for our country seared right through everything we had just experienced.”