Celeste Marion was always interested in helping children. Even before getting a degree in psychology with an emphasis in child development, she worked with young people who were autistic or had other behavior disorders.
Then, in 2004, she traveled to Peru, and everything changed.
Marion was volunteering at a rural school for children with special needs in Cusco when she met Mercedes Delgado, a teacher there. The two women established an immediate rapport—both wanting to help children who were badly in need of help. “Mercedes,” says Marion, “had a really different outlook [than many Peruvians] on what she thought this population deserved. She and I would brainstorm about how we would do things differently if we had the chance.” Not exactly teeming with riches, they nevertheless started their own after-school program for children with disabilities in Delgado’s living room. Class size: two.
“Our mission was to serve all parents, regardless of ability to pay,” Marion said. She and Delgado successfully obtained nonprofit status and founded Manos Unidas.
Their reputation grew, and more and more parents sought out Manos Unidas for their children with disabilities. Eventually, the nonprofit was serving over 75 children with 32 staff members, not only doing quality student education, but also teacher training, and parent outreach.
In 2009, Marion and Delgado opened Camino Nuevo, the first private school in Peru for disabled children.
The need remains great: Less than 5% of the children with disabilities in the region of Cusco receive a formal education. As Marion says, “My vision is for all children with disabilities to have access to quality education and lives free of violence, discrimination, and isolation.”
Besides working with Manos Unidas and Camino Nuevo, Delgado continues to teach in Cusco. Marion commutes between Seattle—where she grew up—and Cusco. To keep the Cusco work going, Marion’s worked several other jobs, borrowed furniture and equipment, solicited funds across the U.S., designed websites, facilitated seminars, trained teachers, and managed the Cusco programs and development activities.
Both Marion and Delgado know what they’re up against; Marion still remembers a neighbor of the school saying that “Those kids should be locked indoors and not seen in public.” And the pressures of continually raising money weigh heavily on Marion. “I often collapse with anxiety because I am still the only person responsible for raising that 50% of funding not covered by student tuition, and I have . . . staff members’ wages depending on me.” And all those kids for whom this is their one chance at an education.
Despite all, Celeste Marion and Mercedes Delgado remain driven by the philosophy that first drove them to help “those kids”: “These children can learn.”