Eleven-year-old Marcelas Owens, who last week invoked his deceased mother’s memory during a speech on Capitol Hill, won’t stay America’s youngest health-care activist for long — his sister Monique, 7, is next to be thrust into the limelight.
“She’s learning the process like Marcelas learned the process,” the siblings’ grandmother, Gina Owens, an activist herself, told The Daily Caller. “Now that the 7-year old wants to know more about it, whenever we do events or workshops with Wa-CAN [Washington Community Action Network], Marcelas will come home and immediately tell his sister about it, how fun it was or how hard it was.”
On the Hill last week, Marcelas’s home-state senator, Democrat Pat Murray, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid flanked the boy during his remarks. “My mom was a health-care activist just like I am today,” Marcelas said, as Gina Owens looked on, smiling and nodding. “She would testify at rallies about everyone having health care.”
Senator Dick Durbin said, “We are asking for an up or down vote and that sounds abstract, but an up or down vote is about Marcelas’s mom.”
Some said the boy, whose mother died three years ago without health insurance at age 27, was being exploited for political gain.
“You can’t talk to Marcelas and listen to this brave young boy talk, and truly believe that,” said Joshua Welter, an Wa-CAN employee and the Owens family’s spokesman. “He asked to share his story, he asked Senator Murray to share his story. People who would stoop so low to attack this 11-year-old kid who has lost his mother and who has the courage to speak up are just disgusting.”
When asked if he felt attacks against the adults closest to Marcelas were warranted Welter said, “I hear what you’re saying. I feel very, very strongly about this, and I just want to push back against the idea that it’s not an attack on the kid.”
“It’s absolutely an attack on him, on his integrity, on his intelligence — to think that people could be putting words in his mouth,” he said. Welter said when he picked Marcelas up from the airport after he returned from Washington, reporters greeted the boy at the airport. “He told me that was the 26th time he’s talked to a reporter in the past week — he really wants to see this passed.”
“To be honest with you, he tells me what he wants to say, and all I do is help him put it in words, but the words and ideas are his,” Gina Owens said. “After I’ve written it on 3×5 cards for him, he’ll practice a lot, he’ll practice the timing.”
Responding to criticisms that adults are putting words in his mouth, she said, “I have seen that and so has Marcelas, and Marcelas has answered that … he was taught that everyone has their own opinion, and that people who have negative things to say about what he’s talking about or doing can have their opinions, but it’s not going to stop him from having his opinion and fighting his fight.”
“We’ve had discussions about it, and he wants to know what it means when people say that: ‘They’re using me.’ And so I have to explain to him that some people are accusing Democrats who want health care to happen of telling you what to say to the press and are using your story to get health care passed,” Marcelas’s grandmother said.
“What they’re saying is that the Democrats don’t care about you, they just want the bill to pass,” Owens said she tells her grandson. “And he says, ‘Well, I want health care to pass too, so what’s the difference?’ and I tell him that for us there is no difference.”
Owens explained that she and Marcelas hadn’t planned to come to Washington last week because it was the boy’s birthday.
“HCAN wanted Marcelas to come and talk about his mom’s story, but Marcelas didn’t want to go because it was right during the week of the wrestling event we had tickets to, he really wanted to just be a kid and spend his birthday looking at wrestling,” she said.
“We had tried arrange for someone else at Wa-CAN who was close to our family to go in our place, but HCAN called and said, ‘It was Marcelas’s story that Senator Murray was talking about — it was Marcelas’s story that got to Barack Obama during the big health-care summit, so it’s really Marcelas’s story we want to see here’,” she said.
“So he and I had a discussion about both sides of it, and I pretty much left the decision up to him, for a couple of reasons, mainly because it was his birthday week, and I also want to give him the room to be a kid — he’s been through so much and it was such a big decision,” she said, and so she told the boy to sleep on it.
“About 4 a.m. he came downstairs where I was watching TV, and he sat down quietly and said, ‘Grandma, we have to go to D.C.’ I was surprised because he was so bent on going to wrestling.” Owens said Marcelas told her his mother had visited him in a dream. “She showed him the difference between what would happened in the world if health care passed, and what would happen if it didn’t. In the world where it passed everyone was healthy, and in the one where it didn’t everyone was sick and dying.”
Gina Owens said she has been a dues-paying member Wa-CAN, a 35,000-member community advocacy group, since 2001 when a canvasser came to her family’s door asking her to get involved in a pending agricultural bill. “The canvasser was telling me a little bit about what was going on with the bill, and asked me what I thought of the bill because my daughter and I were using food stamps. That’s how we got involved,” she said.
Owens became more involved after she was disabled in a car accident in 2001, and had to file for Social Security disability benefits. “It’s all grassroots volunteer work, I was going to events and workshops, and I was also speaking at events and rallies,” she said. “Around 2005, my daughter got involved when Wa-CAN started to work on fast-food chains and businesses that were not offering health insurance.” Her daughter, Tiffany Owens, was a manager as a restaurant.
“My grandson got involved in 2007 when his mom died, he was 7 at the time … and it was bothering him that when his mom died, she didn’t have health insurance. It was bothering him that she was working so hard for people who didn’t have insurance when she did, and when she lost her insurance she died.”
Marcelas’s grandmother explained his history of precocious behavior. “We talked a lot about what we were doing in the house, he liked to sit and watch the news, he liked to hear about the work we were doing with Wa-CAN. He would see us on stage speaking at events, and going to a lot of workshops and conferences, and it piqued his interest and he wanted to know what it was about.”
Owens said a local news station did a story about the elementary school Marcelas attended, which featured an interview with the whole family.
“That was the initial breakthrough,” she explained. “After they saw the Channel 9 thing, Wa-CAN talked with Marcelas about how that interview felt to him, and he started attending all of their meetings with me, and they would get him involved in small ways, like their summer youth conference.”
“Then Marcelas got small speaking roles — whenever I had a speaking role, he would take parts of my role and he would speak it, and it from there, and he started getting roles for himself.”
Owens said the biggest role was at a May 2009 health-care rally in Seattle, where she introduced her grandson to Murray, who was also speaking at the event.
“I had met her before,” she said. “I had met her because I had been to her office on a number of occasions with Wa-CAN, but she did not know that my daughter had passed, that was her first hearing of my daughter’s story. The next thing we know Wa-CAN was giving us a call that Senator Murray was actually using Marcelas’s story in congressional debates on health care.”
Some have questioned whether such a young child who recently lost his mother should be an advocate for national policy changes.
“Children re-grieve developmentally – when they’re 11 or 12, their understanding matures and they have a different understanding than when they were 7 or 8,” says Deborah Rivlin, an expert in child bereavement and a bereavement educator at The Children’s Room, a center for grieving children. “They may have more questions, they may ask what does this mean.”
Speaking specifically of Marcelas Owens’s case, she said, “It could be for him that that’s the way he’s making meaning of his mother’s death — it could be healthy. It depends on if he’s being pressured or not.”
Welter says that no one in the Owens family has ever received any compensation for their appearances, and that participation in their community organization is on a voluntary basis.
Marcelas couldn’t be reached for comment because he was in school.
Contact Aleksandra at: ak[at]dailycaller[dot]com.