Twelve youth arts programs from across the country were honored this week with the 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award. The prize, delivered by First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House, comes with a $10,000 grant and is meant to be the nation’s highest honor for out-of-school programs that “celebrate the creativity of America’s young people, particularly those from underserved communities.”

Many of the programs that stand out for their work in developing learning and life skills are conceived, operated and aimed at Hispanics, and so the White House event Monday had a clear Latino vibe.

The First Lady thanked educators, leaders, and performers for "pushing and inspiring our kids" and "teaching them to believe in themselves."

“Arts education doesn’t just teach our kids valuable skills, it doesn’t just give them an important form of self expression, it also helps to shape their character and in so many ways shapes who they are,” she said. “It is so critical that we preserve art education in our schools, because we know how important it is for our children’s development.”

Chosen from a pool of more than 350 nominations and 50 finalists, the honorees include the New York City Urban Debate League (NYCUDL), a program under the city’s Department of Education that aims to close the achievement gap and emphasizes college and career readiness.

“I am a 15-year-old who is living big dreams and debate has helped me to articulate these dreams and act on them successfully,” said NYCUDL’s Starr Arroyo. “I am a kid from the South Bronx and standing here in the White House, I feel the world is full of possibilities. I always told myself that no matter what would happen, I would make something of myself. And I’ve been on the path to do just that. As President Obama once said, you may not know you can be president or on the Supreme Court, until you join the school debate team,” she said to applause and laughter.

The ceremony also included a musical performance by the City of San Fernando (California) Mariachi Master Apprentice Program, another honoree.

“I’ve been involved in this program since sixth grade,” said Ernesto Lázaro, a high school senior and member of the mariachi group who is applying to the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City. “I love it. I am proud to be here and proud of all what we’ve accomplished.”

Cristal Barajas is a recent college graduate and one of the mariachi group’s mentors.

“This is like living a dream. It is phenomenal. I never thought in my life I would be here in the White House, and I never ever thought I would meet the first lady.”

Other honorees include Youth Radio in Oakland, Calif., Paso Nuevo, Next Step Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington, D.C., and the Out of School Programs/DreamYard Project in the Bronx, N.Y.

A special International Spotlight Award went to the 100 Dong Songs Program of the Western China Cultural Ecology Research Workshop in Hong Kong, which is a program dedicated to preserving the cultural heritage of the Dong people, an indigenous ethnic group in the Guizhou Province of China.

The 2012 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards are hosted by the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Patricia Guadalupe is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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