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WASHINGTON – Four years after moving to Buffalo without knowing any English, Jose Lagares found himself striding across a stage in the White House East Room Friday to meet the first lady.

And he found the perfect words for the situation.

“I told her I was nervous,” Lagares, 18, said afterwards.

And who wouldn’t be? Only two years after Lagares went to Buffalo’s CEPA Gallery to partake of its after-school photography program, here he was at the White House with CEPA’s education director, Lauren Tent, as first lady Michelle Obama presented the Buffalo photo gallery and learning center with one of 12 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Awards.

It was a thrill – and a lesson in the power of persistence – for both CEPA and Lagares.

And the thrill didn’t just involve meeting the first lady. It came from hearing CEPA mentioned in the same breath as other after-school programs that the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities honored as the nation’s very best.

From CEPA to the Boston Children’s Chorus to the Storycatchers Theatre’s Programs for Detained and Incarcerated Youth in Chicago, the programs that were honored all have one thing in common, Obama said.

“All of you are using the power of the arts to change young people’s lives,” she said.

What’s more, they’re doing it in unique ways.

“CEPA’s arts program uses photography and creative writing as tools for examining such complex themes as urban blight and the struggle for social equality,” said Carole Watson, acting director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, as Lagares and Tent received the award from the first lady.

Obama ladled special praise on the teachers in the room, saying: “You’ve seen first-hand that giving a child the chance to fill a canvas or to perfect a harmony or to shine on stage – that can stoke the flames of a lifelong passion, and it can teach valuable skills like hard work and persistence.”

Those are skills that the leaders of CEPA have been practicing for a long time. They’ve applied for the award they finally won for at least five years, mostly at the insistence of the gallery’s grant writer, Kathleen Kearnan.

“She was like a bulldog,” said Sean Donaher, CEPA’s director. “She was not going to let go until CEPA got this. Every year she’d come back to us and say: should we apply for it again?”

And every year, Donaher said yes – until finally, this year, CEPA was named, from out of the hundreds of groups that applied, one of 50 finalists.

“We were so happy just with that,” Donaher said.

Everyone got a lot happier, though, when CEPA received word this summer that the gallery had won the $10,000 award.

“The goal is now to leverage this and increase the number of children we serve,” Donaher said. “It’s meant to bolster the program and increase the scope of it.”

First, though, CEPA’s leaders knew they’d get to revel in a trip to the White House. And knowing that they’d have to bring a student along, they quickly decided on Lagares.

“Jose’s been with us for two years now,” Tent said. “He’s a great photographer. It’s definitely his passion.”

But it wasn’t just his talent that brought him to Washington.

“His story made him our first choice,” Donaher said.

Lagares’ story began in public housing in Yauco, a city of 42,000 in southwestern Puerto Rico, where he was one of 10 children.

Moving to Buffalo to join his father, a construction worker, he enrolled in Buffalo city schools not knowing any English.

“I felt like a stranger,” Lagares said, recalling that his only go-to English phrase at the time was: “I don’t know.”

Lagares might not have known the language at the time, but he knew his passion. Growing up in Puerto Rico, he was always grabbing his mom’s cellphone to take pictures.

So when he heard about CEPA through Hispanics United, he went down to the gallery after school one day and started learning.

He’s been there every week for two years now, mastering both film and digital photography skills that are as far away from cellphone point-and-shoots as Buffalo is from Yauco.

And now, while still a junior at Lafayette High School, he’s a photographer with a portfolio, as well as a business card with a stunning sunset shot of the Peace Bridge on one side and an equally stunning sunset shot of Erie Basin Marina on the other.

“All my dreams are coming true,” Lagares said.

Lagares knows that this is just the start, though; he’s planning to go to college, majoring in photography, in two years.

In other words, Lagares seems to be living proof of just what the first lady said before departing from the podium at Friday’s event.

Looking out over the crowd of young artists, Obama said: “You can do whatever you want in life, you got that?”

Understanding every word, Jose Lagares smiled and nodded.

email: jzremski@buffnews.com