Every woman experiences moments when her life irrevocably changes. One of mine occurred during a two-mile trip across Washington D.C. on the morning of September 11, 2001. When I got in my car at the White House, a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. By the time I reached the U.S. Capitol a second plane was striking and we were a nation at war. Our world would never be the same.
What could I do? I had come to the Capitol to brief a Senate committee on early childhood education, and as a mother and a trained educator, I quickly saw how I might help. In front of the press with Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Judd Gregg, I took this press question, "Mrs. Bush – is there a message you could tell to the nation’s children?" And I answered, "Parents need to reassure their children everywhere in our country that they are safe."
In the coming weeks, with our country's grief raw and our heartache heavy, a friend called to encourage me. She confessed that when I first moved to Washington, she had been glad that she did not have to walk in my shoes, but now she envied me because "you can do something after this horrible tragedy." And I could. I wrote letters to American children, comforting them and encouraging them to respond to fear and hate with kindness and love. I met with first responders, members of our military, and their families, and thanked them for their service and sacrifice. And I stood with the families of the victims of September 11th.
My work as First Lady had a focus and reach I had never expected. I gave the weekly Presidential radio address denouncing the brutal treatment of women and children by the Taliban. The stark contrast between their lives and ours horrified many Americans and the result was a deeply compassionate response. In 2002, American women launched the U.S. - Afghan Women's Council. Inaugurated by Presidents Bush and Karzai, the U.S. - Afghan Women's Council gives individual American citizens a way to partner with Afghan women. Today, eleven years later, U.S. - Afghan Council projects are building schools and homes for orphans, teaching business skills to Afghan women and even reforesting the country. Other American partnerships with women in health, business, and culture have been launched across Africa and the Middle East.
When I was young, I thought of work as something you had to do. Now I know that work is what makes life fulfilling. As I learned that September morning, when confronted with such a tragic event, I could lean in to use my work to help others.