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NEW YORK -CUNA Mutual President/CEO Mike Kitchen recently spent some time with the likes of 60 Minutes Correspondent Mike Wallace, Wal-Mart President/CEO Thomas M. Coughlin, singer Michael Bolton, comedian Dennis Leary and many other notables, but he couldn’t stop thinking about what got him there – credit unions and his 6,000 employees that help credit unions bring financial services to millions of members. On May 17 Kitchen was on Ellis Island in New York Harbor receiving the Ellis Island Medal of Honor. Kitchen was one of 130 to receive the award this year. Those 130 were selected from over 10,000 candidates. With a number of entertainers, business leaders, presidents, and athletes having won the award it’s not easy to pin down how the awards are doled out. According to the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO), which sponsors the awards, the Medal of Honor is designed to “pay homage to the immigrant experience and individual achievement” and is awarded to those who “exemplify outstanding personal and professional qualities while continuing to preserve the richness of their heritage.” Kitchen, who admittedly was both humbled and overwhelmed by the honor, said he got to know some of his fellow award winners at a reception the night before the award ceremony and was in awe of their accomplishments. “It was a pretty remarkable group of people. To just sit there and listen to them, it’s an awful lot of people who put a lot of work into making a difference in the United States,” said Kitchen, who spent a good deal of time with Wallace and Bolton. “You look at a lot of the names over the years, the leaders in business, in military and presidents, and you feel very humbled by the fact that you’re chosen to receive this honor,” he said. In order to win, you must first be nominated. Kitchen said initially he was very curious to know who nominated him, but he’s decided to give up on that. “Sometimes it’s better not to know,” he said. Once nominated, a number of committees and eventually the NECO Board decide on the award winners. Kitchen said he was surprised to learn that even before he was nominated the NECO Board had him in mind as a candidate, and knew about his background. “They obviously did their homework,” he said. The award has special meaning for Kitchen who received his U.S. citizenship just last November. A Canadian, Kitchen moved to the U.S. in 1995 when he assumed the CEO position at CUNA Mutual. And as he learned, it takes time to get citizenship. “When I came here I was able to get my permanent residence card in eight or nine months. You have to have that for five years before you can even apply to be a citizen,” he said, and from there there’s a long application and interview process. Interestingly, Kitchen said as part of the process, he had to document all trips out of the country in the last five years, as well as every organization he’s served on. “I’ve been on boards I can’t even remember and I do travel a lot, so even that part was hard,” he said. Fortunately he kept his calendars so he was able to recount his travels outside the country. For Kitchen this award wasn’t about his ethnic makeup as it was about what he’s done in this country, and the people who have helped him do it. “It wasn’t about being Canadian. It’s about the contributions to this country. I’m proud to be an American citizen. I think I’m just the representative of our staff. They chose me to receive the award. They help credit unions and help members, the people who make a difference in communities.” Kitchen hails from the very small village of Mindemoya on the island of Manitoulin in the northern part of Lake Huron. Mindemoya was where Kitchen’s father was sent to minister. “I came from a minister’s background. We didn’t have much money. I used to have to work a lot of jobs to get through school. To be recognized with these kinds of people is amazing.” He first entered the credit union world as head of CUMIS Group of Canada, a CUNA Mutual subsidiary. He served there three years before being named to lead CUNA Mutual. While he was surprised and humbled by the award, Kitchen said he’s baffled over how CUNA Mutual employees were able to surprise him with a mega send-off celebration on May 13. Over 2,000 CMG employees were on hand for “Celebrate America”, a day which featured a number of patriotic events. “That an organization this size could keep this secret was a huge deal. People were so excited. I’m honored to lead this company,” said Kitchen. So what does one say to a Mike Wallace or a Michael Bolton when you have their ear? “I talked about credit unions and what they are and the differences they make to American life. I’m a bit of a fanatic. I think the country is much better off because you have credit unions. I suggested a couple people start them. I’m not sure I had enough time to work on them,” said Kitchen. -

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