President Barack Obama meets with Tanei Benjamin at the Charcoal Pit in Wilmington on Thursday. She wrote him last July asking for help. / AP/Jacquelyn Martin
WILMINGTON, Del. -- For 30 uninterrupted minutes on Thursday, 23-year-old Tanei Benjamin had the ear and undivided attention of the most powerful man in the world.
And a grilled cheese sandwich.
"It is so surreal. I still, even to this second, can't believe it really happened," she said.
Benjamin, who lives near Newark, Delaware, had written a letter to President Barack Obama and submitted it through the White House website in July 2013. She asked him to help out single working mothers like herself who struggle to pay their bills and raise a child but make too much to qualify for government assistance for things like child care.
She assumed she was largely writing for herself and the letter would never get read by anyone at the White House, let alone Obama. But earlier this month she was contacted and was told "someone" would be meeting with her about her letter and on Tuesday found out that "someone" would be the president.
Benjamin's boss, insurance agent Darren Moore, said he was a bit skeptical that his new employee â?? she has only been working at the office for a couple of weeks â?? was going to meet the president for lunch.
Moore said he was afraid someone might be playing a cruel trick on Benjamin. But he said since Obama was coming to the area it was possible, so he let her go. He said it was the best excuse he had ever heard from an employee seeking to take off.
Benjamin said she was getting a series of phone calls from a phone number that was "restricted" and was directed to go to the DoubleTree Hotel in downtown Wilmington. Benjamin said it was only once she left the hotel and was in a car riding with a member of the White House staff that she was informed she and the president would be meeting at the Charcoal Pit on U.S. 202.
Within five to 10 minutes of her sitting down, Obama arrived at the restaurant and greeted her. "It was awesome. He greeted me as his date," she said with a giggle.
Benjamin said that unlike the caricature some have drawn of Obama as cold and distant, she said he was warm and friendly. "He's down-to-earth, he really cares," she said, adding Obama ordered a hamburger and glass of water while she had a grilled cheese sandwich, cheese fries and a chocolate milkshake.
Benjamin reported, however, that she was so nervous, "I couldn't focus on my food when I had the president sitting across from me."
She said the president paid for both lunches himself, "with cash" and downed his burger "in one bite," declaring it "pretty good.
"I could barely eat. I brought the food home with me," she said, showing her Charcoal Pit milkshake cup to prove her point.
"He made me feel so comfortable, he made me feel like he cared," she said, "And not only about me, but about every parent like me who is going through the same struggle."
According to the White House, Obama was given a copy of Benjamin's letter and when he finished reading it he wrote, "Copy to senior advisers. This is the person we are working for" at the bottom.
"We talked a lot about the letter I wrote," Benjamin said, adding the president said he and his staff are working on trying to find a way to help out single working mothers like Benjamin.
In addition to being a full-time mom to her 6-year-old daughter, Arona, Benjamin is also a full-time student and is working full time. She makes more than minimum wage but said she has found it tough to pay rent, pay her bills and pay for child care and when she has applied for assistance she has been turned down because she makes too much money.
"It is hard to juggle your life when you have so much going on," she said.
Benjamin said Obama was genuinely interested in her daughter and her welfare and at the end of the meeting he gave her a "presidential goodie bag" for Arona. Inside was a Frisbee with a White House logo along with a yo-yo, pictures of Obama's two dogs and several small boxes of candy with the presidential seal.
Obama also wrote a note on a small piece of presidential stationery for Benjamin's daughter, telling her how her mother was bragging about how well she was doing in school, adding, "Keep it up, and dream big dreams."
He also gave Benjamin a copy of the letter she wrote to the White House, with his notation to the staff at the bottom. He then added an extra line to Benjamin, "I'm so proud of you. Hang in there and God Bless!"
The notes are destined for frames.
The lunch was "a dream come true," Benjamin said, "And I told him that this is the type of thing you see other people doing and wish it could be you but you don't think will ever happen."
Benjamin said Obama smiled. "And then he told me it was a pleasure to meet with me and have lunch with me."
She said she was not able to get a "selfie" with the president because she was not allowed to take her cell phone with her.
And then, as quickly as it began, it was over and the president headed off to his media event at the Port of Wilmington, and Benjamin was taken back to her car in downtown Wilmington.
Benjamin said she left work about 11:10 a.m. and was back at her desk at the insurance agency by 2:15 p.m.
"I can't afford to take a day off, even on a day I met the president," she said.
Read the original story: Single mom shares a sandwich with Obama