The Volunteer Who Opened Doors to a Wider World of Opportunities — Maureen Orth (Colombia)

 

The Volunteer Who Opened Doors to a Wider World of Opportunities

By Jeremiah Norris Colombia (1963-65) 

Maureen Orth

Maureen Orth attended the University of California, Berkeley, graduating in 1964, then became a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural site outside of Medellin, Colombia, 1964-66. After Colombia, she became a Peace Corps recruiter in the Midwest and then headed the Peace Corps west coast Office of Public Affairs, then earned a graduate degree in journalism at the University of California, Los Angeles.

In an essay titled as “Twice in My Life,” she recorded an early experience as a Volunteer when on one memorable Sunday afternoon a dramatic posse of five men on horseback, dressed in black fedoras and wearing traditional ruanas galloped up to her front door in the barrio. They were leading an extra horse for her.

They rode straight up into the mountains for about three miles to meet an isolated community of campesinos in a vereda called Agua Frias. The people were desperate for a school. Several Sundays later they began with a community work-day and formed a human chain to throw rocks down the mountainside to clear the land. A year later there was a brick building that on dedication day bore a crude hand-lettered sign reading: Escuela Marina Orth. In time, this was to be the seed that eventually blossomed into programs in 31 public schools in the Medellin area, opening the door for thousands of underprivileged children to compete in a fast evolving technological environment of artificial intelligence and robotics.

After earning her MS degree, Maureen went on to a distinguished career in global journalism. She became one of the first female writers at Newsweek magazine; then senior editor at New York, New West Magazines; a principal correspondent of Newsweek Woman on Lifetime; a network correspondent for NBC News; a contributing editor at Vogue; and since 1993, Special Correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine.

Along the way, she managed to interview heads of state, such as: Russian President Vladimir Putin; British PM Margaret Thatcher; Argentinian President Carlos Menem, and Irish President Mary Robinson. Her cover stories for Newsweek included Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen. At Vanity Fair she investigated the child molestation cases of Michael Jackson and Woody Allen as well as those of a pedophile priest. She has written articles on Tina Turner and Conrad Black, while profiling France’s First Lady Carla Bruni, and somehow finding time to publish her bestselling book Vulgar Flavors, about serial killer Andrew Cunanan who assassinated Gianni Versace. Vulgar Favors was the basis of the Emmy winning series, “Season Two of American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace.” In 1989, she was given the National Women’s Political Caucus Exceptional Media Award for outstanding coverage of women in politics. In 2011 she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen Club of New York.

And these achievements in global journalism were done with Maureen’s left hand.

Meanwhile, with her right hand, she became founder of the Marina Orth Foundation. It promotes education for underprivileged youth as the best way to empower them to build their own futures. The Foundation’s mission is to give its students and teachers the tools to compete in the 21st Century.

By 2019, that mission goal has resulted in 585 teachers being trained variously in technology, socio emotional abilities, English, STEM and robotics. Its impact on students has been equally impressive, in 2019 alone with 3,380 trained in English; 4,000 in Technology; 1,005 in STEM and Robotics; 482 in Vocational Training; and 20 that won scholarships to pursue a higher education degree. It has also introduced XO laptops in Nuqui, Choco, on the Colombian Pacific coast, one of the country’s neglected areas of extreme poverty.

In 2019, the Foundation’s students placed in the top 10 out of 55 countries that participated in the Robotex World Championship in Estonia. In 2018, its all-girls team won a gold medal at RoboRAVE in Albuquerque, New Mexico; in Medellin, it won 4 of 5 awards at the Social Power Innovation Event of Medellin competing with both private and public schools; it produced its first engineer and first lawyer (who wrote a book.) Over 40% of its robotics students are girls. And, in Robotics alone, it has 850 students. The Foundation’s IT program has connected children in rural communities and others who live in some of the more remote areas of Colombia so they and their families can see and use a computer for the first time. In order to reduce educational inequality, the Foundation has provided more than 7,500 XO laptops to its students. They take these computers home and in this manner their parents can also learn how to bridge the technology gap.

The starting point for Maureen’s contributions to the betterment of our society can be found in that isolated community called Agua Frias and the doors that she opened are now leading those students to a highly competitive world of unlimited opportunities — and they have seized the moment!  Today, in order for others closer at home to seize that moment, Maureen has made the lead gift for a new NPCA initiative she has created, “Never Stop Serving,” so that returned volunteers will be able to serve in Washington DC in the surrounding communities of the North Capitol corridor where the future National Peace Corps Association headquarters will open this year.

Maureen’s steadfast commitment to the educational advancement of marginalized children has catapulted them into a whole wide world of unlimited opportunities, earning her A Profile in Citizenship.

Following his tour in Colombia (1963-65) Jeremiah Norris went to work on the Peace Corps Staff at PC/HQ.  During the Administration of George H. W. Bush, he served as Director of Human Resources, Bureau for Europe, Department of State, managing the U. S. Government response for health in the former states of the USSR. He then worked for the Hudson Institute in Washington D. C.as Director, Center for Science in Public Policy.Pr

9 Comments

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  • Agua Frias—the gift that keeps on giving. The achievements in robotics are a. remarkable accomplishment.

  • What an impressive story. How can one learn more about the foundation and its funding? ETWilliamsJr PCV Ethiopia 1

  • Jeremiah: I worked in PC DC in the 60’s in
    the Office that worked with other world
    countries who had similar volunteer pro-
    grams. Ie Netherlands, Canada,etc Were
    you in DC then? Would like to learn more
    of your experience then.B.Peyser, Sarasota,Fl

    • Dear Beverly,

      I was in Public Affairs for most of my time with PC/W during the years 1965-70. That is, except for my first year in the Office of International Programs. This was the Office that handled PC contracts with groups like CARE, 4H, and the Cooperative League of the USA. In all that time, I can’t remember ever meeting you–but then again, that’s my loss not yours. Best wishes.

  • just a little addition to the “obit”..
    Kudos to my sister Maureen for her faith and determination in helping to educate the children and families of Colombia. She often says “God did not discriminate when he passed out brains”. Her faith in God propels her to support and bring awareness to the needs of the less fortunate not only in Colombia but also here in the US. “Si Dios quiere “ translated “if God wills it” is not Maureen’s mantra, rather hard work, determination and creating opportunities for those in need is her practice. In addition to being a proud sister, I have also benefited from Maureen’s Peace Corps experience which propelled me to learn Spanish and work in the non profit sector for public education and the arts. Saludos, Christina Orth

  • Maureen, your work is so incredibly impressive and I feel so honored that you helped explain the Peace Corps in our documentary. Your sentence: “The Peace Corps taught me empathy.” is so powerful at the end of the film!
    Thank you for all you do!
    Alana

  • Thanks to this wonderful write-up of Maureen Orth and her many, many accomplishments, it is a distinct privilege to say “I have known her!” Thanks, Maureen, for all you have contributed and continue to do so. Also, Jeremiah Norris, for helping to bring Maureen’s to light.

  • Jerry, you have written an excellent, comprehensive “Profile in Citizenship” on Maureen Orth. I didn’t know about the many extraordinary efforts and achievements she has realized outside of what she did and continues to do for the people of Colombia. I don’t think I ever had the pleasure of knowing her in Colombia. But, I will say this: Maureen I greatly admire what you have done over these many years. I am particularly heartened by your program in Nuqui, Choco. In ’64 Dan Taylor and I opened the site in El Valle. I have fond memories of the people there, of their decency and humility. They were desperately poor, as were many throughout the Choco. No doubt, there is still great hardship throughout the region. I congratulate you on your efforts and commitment to help the people in Nuqui.

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