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.
The program focused on jobs in the tourism/hospitality industry. “We created a mock hotel room, and a mock café to train our students in a real life environment,” says Marion.
Soon the mock café became a real café, with members of the community visiting on Fridays when the students would wait on real, paying customers.
Marion, however, still was not satisfied. One of the main goals of Manos Unidas has always been inclusion, integrating the developmentally disabled into mainstream society. “The café was still a segregated model,” says Marion. “The community was coming to us. Our students were not being equally and adequately added to the community.”
Marion wanted Manos Unidas students to be seen by the public on a daily basis. She wrote a business plan, received a grant, and opened the Manos Unidas Café in March 2018. The café was located in the heart of Cusco.
“That location was really important for me,” says Marion. “I wanted local awareness, but I also wanted the eyes of tourism. I wanted tourists to be interacting in that café, giving our students a real-world experience of hospitality.”
About 20 youths (not all of whom are from Manos Unidads) work at the café, and customers—mostly tourists—often find their stories touching, and will spend time conversing with them. The café workers feel the same way. “There’s an incredible reception when groups come in,” says Marion. “Visitors want to take pictures. The youths will sit down with guests. It’s a really sweet relationship vibe.”
If you would like to visit the Manos Unidas Café in Cusco, check out these trips from Intrepid, some of which include a visit to the café.