CCPS Graduate Alumna Advocates for the Neediest Populations
Children, immigrants, victims of natural disasters, the impoverished, and refugees of global conflict are all close to the heart of Michelle Amaryllis Centeno ’14GCPS. Ms. Centeno has spent her entire life working on behalf of populations on the margins as a passionate humanitarian, relief worker, and policy activist.
The child of immigrant parents from El Salvador, she began a lifelong journey of advocacy while still a child, educating her classmates about the plight of children in her family’s home country. That passion only intensified during her formative years, including during her time at St. John’s University, where she earned her Master of Science degree in International Communication in 2014.
“St. John’s University and its Vincentian values helped me further navigate my purpose to serve,” she stressed. “As an integral part of my journey of discovery and knowledge, these strong convictions have strengthened my life-long commitment to fighting for equity and advocating for justice everywhere I go and in everything I do.” Last year, Ms. Centeno was awarded the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Medal, given to an alumna whose life and work mirror that of Mother Seton, at St. John’s University’s annual Vincentian Convocation.
Prior to her arrival at St. John’s, Ms. Centeno, the first member of her family to attend college, became involved with United Farm Workers and the Los Angeles chapter of the Step Up women’s network while studying at the University of California, Los Angeles. There, she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in International Development Studies and Political Science in 2009.
After completing her undergraduate degree, she made the leap to New York City, a hub for international relief agencies, again immersing herself in the world of advocacy and policymaking. The welfare of children has always been her most paramount concern.
While at St. John’s, Ms. Centeno worked at the Permanent Mission of El Salvador to the United Nations, the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, and for the international child welfare nonprofit organization Arigatou International. There, she tirelessly lobbied against child marriage and violence toward children.
Upon graduation, Ms. Centeno joined the staff of the United Nations Children’s Fund (more commonly known as UNICEF), where she worked in various capacities at both UNICEF USA and UNICEF El Salvador.
Ms. Centeno served as an organizational spokesperson, providing high-level briefings about humanitarian crises and UNICEF’s programmatic work, and helped develop programs to address issues faced by refugees, migrants, and other vulnerable populations. She has managed partnerships with local organizations that focus on child protection and the well-being of the most marginalized.
At UNICEF, she found herself confronted with some of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, including Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, both of which devastated Puerto Rico and other locations in the Caribbean.
After Hurricane Maria, Ms. Centeno was on the ground in Puerto Rico leading aid efforts. She managed emergency response efforts, delivering lifesaving supplies and establishing a program to address nutrition and trauma for some of the most vulnerable children and families.
“These lovely, resilient people remained hopeful, and that was truly inspiring,” she recalled. “They even offered their support with anything we might need help with; they understood there are other kids around the world who have needs.”
She added, “Despite the destruction and devastation, we were able to experience firsthand the sense of community and willingness of people to come together and help one another, even if they themselves had lost everything.”
Ms. Centeno recently accepted a position with CommunityConnect Labs, where she works with partners to implement innovative technical programs that impact hard-to-reach populations—a problem she recognized while in Puerto Rico. She said, “I want to continue using my gifts to serve and be a resource to others, especially to those who are most marginalized.”