For anyone leading a non-profit organization, the last 90 days have been arduous and contentious. Not only has the ground been shaking, but for many, the floor has fallen out from under them. Their years of expertise and knowledge is suddenly irrelevant as they face unknown circumstances. Suddenly they have been forced to become emergency relief leaders, acting quickly to support their beneficiaries and keep their teams afloat.  

This has been the case for Rosa Mercedes Delgado Chavez; Board Chair of Manos Unidas Peru and the school director of MUP’s special education school, Camino Nuevo. She is also co-founder of the organization together with Celeste Marion.  

Manos Unidas school had just opened its doors for the 2020 school year on March 1 when they were abruptly closed 9 days later. The first few weeks Mercedes hoped this was temporary and the doors would open soon, but that has not been the case.  

Mercedes, who lives in the city of Cusco, Peru, became an emergency relief worker from her living room due to strict, martial-law like quarantine with limited access to internet or the team that surrounds her, while facing her own fears and anxieties of the pandemic. Her adult children were in Lima and Spain, both hot epicenters for the lethal virus, and family members scattered around the world.  

After almost 82 days of lockdown, Peru’s “stay at home” order has been extended to June 30. Parts of the country and urban settings have a soaring transmission rate of the virus, collapsed hospitals and communities are digging mass graves for the deceased. All the while Mercedes has been operating a virtual school from her living room educating 52 special needs children with a reduced team of 12 teachers.  

As time has gone on, Mercedes has been forced to make difficult decisions such as furloughing the new hires as well as staff that have been with Manos Unidas for over 10 years. They were family. During these times of crisis, parents found themselves suddenly unemployed and unable to pay tuition and grants from international partners have been frozen; which comprises a whopping 80% of MUP’s revenue.  

In addition to the financial stress of the organization, Mercedes faced the challenge of navigating an educational curriculum delivered by technology platforms that she had never heard of; “zoom” and tried to imagine her teachers conducting classes via Whatsapp video calls. It was unimaginable.  

Internet connection at Mercedes’s house is unstable, with zoom calls being frozen and interrupted, but she has managed to navigate the challenges and support her teachers doing incredible work with the families, mostly via individual phone calls. She is proud that the connection with families is stronger than ever before and her students look forward to the weekly meetings with their classmates and teachers during these isolating times.  

After 27 years of working as a tenured teacher for Peru’s ministry of Education, Mercedes retired from the public sector to dedicate her life to Manos Unidas Peru. As a person that should be enjoying her retirement and years of service while taking on a new passion project, she is facing the challenges of a pivoting organization, navigating technology for the first time and holding her team together, albeit virtually. This has been a time of extreme stress, frustration and pain as she has been forced to navigate these events almost entirely on her own. She received support and suggestions from MUI’s board and director but on a daily basis it has been up to her to make the final calls. 

Manos Unidas Peru depends on international funding to cover 70% of its budget through grants from MUI and other funding agencies.  Tuition covers approximately 20% of the total revenue. As grantors like MUI experience their own drop in revenue due to decrease in donations, cancelations of all volunteer programs and trips and unemployed MUP parents unable to pay tuition the financial future of MUP remains uncertain. Now, Mercedes is faced with the challenge of pivoting the organizations activities for sustainability whilst trying to meet compliance with Peru’s ministry of education. 

A situation like the world is facing is stressing leaders globally. No one was prepared for a global pandemic, not even the strongest leaders or most stable non-profits. So, lets recognize and uplift the leaders who are working hard to sustain their organizations and show our support to our international partners whose livelihoods depend on Western funds for survival.  

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