Not Just Another Café in Cusco

Celeste Marion first came to Peru as a backpacker: “Little did I know that a two-month volunteer experience would turn into a lifetime of working with Cusco’s most vulnerable population of children.”

The Seattle native is co-founder of Manos Unidas, the first and only non-profit, special education school in the Cusco area. Today Manos Unidas serves approximately 75 children, ages 3 to 25, who are directly affected by an intellectual disability.

The school works with families from all income levels on a pay-as-you-can basis. Manos Unidas is recognized as a model for inclusion and changing attitudes toward the intellectually disabled in schools, homes and the workplace. Its beginnings, however, are much more humble.

While Marion was touring Peru in 2004, she noticed that children with intellectual disabilities were not in school, as the public school system did not have a place for them. Furthermore, these children were often rejected by their families who did not believe they were educable.

Marion, who has a background in autism education, soon met Mercedes Delgado a Cusco-based school teacher who worked with developmentally disabled kids. The two immediately connected.

“We united our visions, our frustrations, our anger in what could be better for these kids,” says Marion. “We began to dream about what it would look like if we opened our own school.”

And so, in 2006 Manos Unidas began as an afterschool tutoring program in Delgado’s living room. It had two students. In a short time, however, Marion and Delgado’s reputation of delivering quality education grew and more families were knocking at their door.

In 2009, with 25 students enrolled, Manos Unidas opened Camino Nuevo, the first private, non-profit school for special education in the Cusco region.

After many years of struggling, the school started to bear fruit. Marion realized, however, that once students graduated from Manos Unidas, there was nowhere for them to go. This led to the development of a vocational training program in 2014.