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Early in her career as an educator, Marimo Berk was asked to lead a special education class. She had no formal training and no experience working with children with disabilities. In that moment, Marimo recognized two things: the shared joy that results from helping marginalized children reach their potential and the urgent need to improve the status quo for kids with special needs.
We must realize these challenges do not prevent people from contributing to our world.
“People with physical and intellectual challenges deserve the same rights and treatment as the rest of us,” Marimo says. “We must realize these challenges do not prevent people from contributing to our world.”
When Marimo’s son, Derek, was diagnosed with autism at 17 months old, her advocacy quickly grew to action.
“We couldn’t find anything that met Derek’s needs. We went everywhere. We even went across the country,” says Marimo. Preferring to stay close to their families on the west coast, Marimo and her family decided, “Why don’t we see if we can start our own program?”
And so they did. The Creekside School began with two students at Marimo’s home and has grown to an enrollment of 10 in multiple classrooms. The school’s curriculum caters to each student's unique set of interests, strengths, and needs and includes community outings, volunteer work, life skills development, music, art, and even animal-assisted therapy – “that really brings a smile to their faces,” Marimo notes.
Inspired by the growth and success of the Creekside School, Marimo sought to make a difference for even more children. As the daughter of a UNICEF beneficiary – Marimo’s mother received support from UNICEF while growing up in Japan following World War II – UNICEF was top of mind. “My mom would always save whatever money she had left at the end of the month and have me write the check to send off to UNICEF,” she recalls.
Marimo joined UNICEF USA’s Northwest Regional Board in 2014, and the impact of her partnership cannot be overstated.
Through the Derek A.T. Drummond Fund at UNICEF USA, established in honor of her son, Marimo funded a child protection program in Montenegro that helped to reshape communities’ perception and treatment of children with disabilities. Also in Montenegro, Marimo supported a partnership with Special Olympics promoting equal opportunity in access to playgrounds and sports. Her gift toward UNICEF’s Accessible Books program leveraged technology to ensure that all children, regardless of physical, developmental, or learning limitations, are able to study along with their classmates.
Marimo also helped deliver urgent relief to children affected by conflict and natural disasters. Malnourished children in Botswana received life-saving treatment. Syrian refugees gained access to education, offering a brighter future.
Her trust in UNICEF is further exemplified by her generous unrestricted gifts, which allow UNICEF to respond wherever the need is greatest.
A visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan served to remind Marimo of the resiliency of children – and of the difference that UNICEF is making. There, she observed malnutrition-screening, immunization campaigns, and Child-Friendly Spaces where kids could seek counseling, education, or simply a safe place to play.
I just loved these kids - the hope and eagerness in their eyes will stay with me and inspire me always.
The image of a mural painted by refugee children – art therapy not unlike the programs offered at the Creekside School – is etched in her mind. The young artists dedicated the mural to children with disabilities. “I just loved these kids,” she says. “The hope and eagerness in their eyes will stay with me and inspire me always.”
She also witnessed progress in the opportunities offered to children with disabilities in the camp – and the need to do more.
“My son is very fortunate. Children with similar disabilities in Za’atari and elsewhere around the world do not have access to the same services. We can and must help every child reach her or his potential.”
Photo at top: UNICEF USA Northwest Regional Board Chair Marimo Berk assisted students in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan with an art project.