Barbara Pierce Bush, Jenna Bush Hager & Cousin Wendy Join 4 Former Presidents to Celebrate Volunteerism
The Bush twins and their cousin Wendy Stapleton explain how they're continuing their grandfather, former President George H.W. Bush's legacy
The annual celebration of The George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards is approaching and it's going to be a show of unity unlike any year before.
This year the event is virtual and the number of chair members has expanded to include an impressive roster of names. Former First Daughters Barbara Pierce Bush and Jenna Bush Hager will serve as co-chairs with their cousin Wendy Stapleton. All former living Presidents—Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—will serve as honorary chairs.
The show of unity across party lines is just like the twins' "Gampy," former President George H.W. Bush, would have wanted it, Jenna tells PEOPLE in an exclusive joint interview.
"Our grandfather was defeated by President Clinton. He could have had a relationship with him that was filled with animosity, filled with turmoil because he wanted to win." the Today co-host, 38, explains. "But he didn't. President Clinton became a very good friend of his, and I think what they realized is that humanity is what connects us. It's not about red or blue. It's about what brings us together.
"I think that way of being, that way of realizing that we have more in common than what divides us, is the way of our grandpa, is the way of how he lived," she continues. "And so, thankfully [the former presidents] said yes. If we are doing it in his honor, that's what he would have wanted. So, we're thrilled that they all agreed."
The awards celebration will take place on Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. ET and will honor change-makers like Chobani's CEO Hamdi Ulukaya, Salesforce CEO and co-chairs of TIME Marc and Lynne Benioff, Captain Sir Tom Moore, and teen sisters Shreyaa and Esha Venkat, the founders of NEST4US. The event recognizes leaders and everyday people who are as committed to service as the 41st president.
"I've had the chance to interact with two of the different honorees, and I'm excited," says Barbara. "What is so inspiring about each of them, regardless of who they are, is that they are using whatever they can in their own lives to serve others and to give back to others."
The co-chairs were disappointed the event has to be virtual, but explain that the mission behind the celebration is especially important during a global pandemic and a time of historic national unrest.
"This has been a really, really difficult time for our country, and there are so many people that are hurting," Jenna explains. "For a minute we were like, 'Should we just postpone it?' But we decided that this event is more important now than ever before."
Service is a guiding force for the honorees and it's also what connects the three co-chairs. The Bush sisters and their cousin Wendy Stapleton, who is four and a half years older, were practically raised together.
The importance of giving back has been ingrained in them since those long-ago summers when they roamed the Bush family compound in Maine as kids.
"We were desperate, when we were little, to play with Wendy and our other cousin, Noelle, and do whatever they were doing, as they were the older girls. And of course, that is still the case," says Barbara. "It's been a constant relationship. Always seeing each other every year, and always being with each other even when we're not physically together, because we just know each other so well. It's as if Wendy is our sister, our third sister."
"We've been involved in each other's lives forever, since they were born," says Stapleton about working with her cousins. "We're also each other's emotional support animals."
While the cousins haven't worked together formally before, both Jenna and Barbara have helped Stapleton with the Greenwich International Film Festival, which she founded in 2014. It's the first film festival to "program 50 percent of our film slates with films either written or directed by women," Stapleton explains.
"GIFF has a social impact focus and in addition to showing feature films, we show some incredible social impact documentaries," says Stapleton, who also leads a number of other good-works projects. "Film has the ability to both educate and inspire communities to action."
The Bush twins have also centered their lives around giving back.
Beyond serving as co-chair this year for the late President Bush's foundation's awards, Barbara is continuing her work with her organization Global Health Corps, where she serves as board chair. She's also focused on a new job and supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I've started a new job to work on social change issues virtually a handful of weeks ago, and I will see where that goes," Barbara says. "I'm excited through that to be able to work on health, what I've always loved, and the social determinants of health, which are critical to address right now with COVID, and also to support Black Lives Matter."
Barbara adds, "It's very important to me to be involved with the movement for Black lives, and doing what we can to support racial justice in the United States."
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Jenna has worked with UNICEF for over a decade. But she says she wanted to do even more when the COVID-19 pandemic started.
"I sort of do big projects, but I felt like my day-to-day service wasn't what I was happy with as a human, as a mom," Jenna explains. "And so, starting during the pandemic, I would spend my Fridays, when our show was on tape, delivering food to kids in my community who were on the free and reduced lunch list."
Just as her parents and grandparents introduced her to volunteerism at a young age, Jenna wants to do the same with her kids. She says that she's made a point of taking her oldest daughter, 7-year-old Mila, along with her to deliver food.
During one visit, Mila connected with a little girl her age and realized they liked the same series, the Unicorn Diaries. The next week, Mila packed up her box set and gave it to the little girl. They sat and read together, her mom remembers.
"I thought it was really important as a mother to show that we have so much in common, but where you are born shouldn't predict your outcomes," says Jenna. "The fact that there was a little girl her exact age, that lived 10 minutes, 20 minutes from our house, who was going to bed hungry without our deliveries, was something I felt like my daughter needed to see."
The second annual celebration of The George H.W. Bush Points of Light Awards will livestream on Sept. 26 at 8 p.m. ET.
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