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Michelle Obama recalls a murdered girl who didn't get to grow up

First Lady Michelle Obama is shown in this handout photo provided courtesy of the Chicago Tribune as she talks with students about the plagu
First Lady Michelle Obama is shown in this handout photo provided courtesy of the Chicago Tribune as she talks with students about the plagu

By Renita D. Young

CHICAGO (Reuters) - First lady Michelle Obama choked up on Wednesday as she recalled the life of a recent teenage murder victim, a girl from Chicago just like her, but who did not get to grow up.

Obama was in her hometown to join Mayor Rahm Emanuel in urging the business community to help raise $50 million for anti-violence youth programs in the city.

The first lady said that as a native of the city, she could relate to Chicago's youth, particularly 15-year-old honor student Hadiya Pendleton.

The girl was shot and killed in a park a week after performing with her high school band as part of President Barack Obama's inauguration festivities on January 21. The shooting took place about a mile from the Obamas' South Side Chicago home.

"Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her. But I got to grow up," Obama said, choking up as she talked about the teenager in her address to about 800 business and community leaders at a downtown Chicago hotel. Pendleton's parents, as well as parents of other children who died as a result of Chicago gun violence, attended the event.

Youth violence in Chicago has received national attention - with 506 primarily gun-related homicides in the city last year, an increase of 17 percent over 2011.

The massacre of 20 students and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, last December prompted the president to push for new gun-control legislation. Michelle Obama's visit to Chicago was seen as part of that campaign.

"Right now, my husband is fighting as hard as he can and engaging as many people as he can to pass common-sense reforms to protect our children from gun violence," Michelle Obama said. "And these reforms deserve a vote in Congress."

The administration is struggling to gain support from lawmakers for proposals to expand background checks for gun buyers and ban assault-style weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in the face of opposition by gun rights groups such as the National Rifle Association.

The first lady also met with students at Harper High School, a South Side public school that has seen 29 current and former students shot in the past year. Eight of them died.

"In this world today, if you stay focused you can make it happen," she told students. "The best thing you can do in life is really be serious about education. I'm not going to talk. Ask me whatever you want to know."

Emanuel wants to raise $50 million to create and maintain programs for at-risk youth. Led by Allstate Chief Executive Thomas Wilson and Loop Capital Chief Executive James Reynolds, Jr., the committee is now at $33 million with investments from Allstate, the MacArthur Foundation and other local and national organizations.

(Reporting by Renita D. Young; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)