Join us in Making the Impossible Possible on April 30th, 2024


Marlee Matlin

Academy Award-Winning Actress & Activist

Marlee Matlin received worldwide critical acclaim for her film debut in Paramount Pictures’ Children of a Lesser God, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Actress. At 21, she became the youngest recipient of the Best Actress Oscar and only one of four actresses to receive the honor for her film debut. In addition to the Oscar, Marlee received the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Drama. In 2021, Marlee was nominated once again as Executive Producer for the Live Action Short, Feeling Through. And in 2022, her Apple TV+ film CODA swept every category it was nominated in at the 2022 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Marlee has also starred in numerous television projects, including Seinfeld, The West Wing, Law and Order SVU, The L Word, Switched At Birth, The Magicians and Quantico, garnering four Emmy nominations along the way. In 2022, Marlee made her first foray into directing, being the first network television director who is Deaf for the Fox TV anthology drama, Accused.

In addition to her film, TV and stage work, Marlee broke barriers when she starred on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars and in 2012, Marlee released her first app, appropriately titled Marlee Signs, teaching American Sign Language to millions of smart phone users. She has also penned three novels for children, as well as her New York Times best- selling autobiography, I’ll Scream Later.

In 1994, Marlee was appointed by President Clinton to the Corporation for National Service and in 2010, Marlee joined President Barack Obama at the White House in ceremonies celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. In June 2022, Marlee was elected to the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, representing the Actors Branch.

Despite the odds, Marlee’s journey is an inspiration to everyone, regardless of the barriers they face and she has refused to let the naysayers get in the way of her dreams of success. As she so aptly stated, “The only thing I can’t do is hear. The rest is there for the taking.”

Opening Speaker

Susan Saelee, Director of Operations, Blue Zones Project Bakersfield

Susan received her B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego. Her Purpose and passion have been to help children in communities thrive. This led to working for the Kern County Department of Child Support Services for the past 15 years in various roles, including case management, data analytics, human resources and program management.

Her time there is where she discovered her joy of leading and mentoring people and teams, which she has been doing for the past 6 years. Susan is excited to be part of Blue Zones Project – Bakersfield because she gets to participate in bringing evidence-based concepts and practices for healthier outcomes to a community that she grew up in. She is eager to see opportunities for people in Bakersfield to have healthier choices that will prolong their lifespan so they can spend more time loving and living.

Susan’s purpose and passions outside of work are her husband, Joe, and their two daughters, Mia and Liana. As a working mother, Susan personally understands the struggle when it comes to making healthier choices that benefit her well-being and that of her family. She is all in to bringing  an initiative to her community that helps all to live longer, better!

Closing Speaker

Mari Pérez Dowling, President and CEO of United Way of Central Eastern California

Mari Pérez-Dowling stands as an accomplished President and CEO, celebrated for her dynamic leadership, strategic acumen, and unwavering commitment to community welfare and education. Her journey is marked by a rich tapestry of experiences across education, media, nonprofit sectors, and most recently, a groundbreaking venture into the music industry as a recording artist in the mariachi genre.

Born into a first-generation college family, Mari overcame early adversities to emerge as a beacon of academic success. She holds a Master’s degree in Multicultural Studies Bilingual Education, a Teaching Credential in Foreign Language/ELD and a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish Language and Literature/Latin American Studies, earned from California State University, Bakersfield and San Diego State University. Additionally, she pursued an Environmental Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University, further broadening her expertise.

Currently serving as the President and CEO of the United Way of Central Eastern California (previously named United Way of Kern County), Mari has been instrumental in steering transformative changes and fostering positive impacts in education, health, and financial stability within the community. As a skilled professional in journalism, social media, editing, public speaking, and public relations, Mari brings a unique blend of talents to her executive role.

Mari’s professional journey encompasses diverse roles, reflecting her versatility and dedication. Notably, she recently embarked on a musical odyssey as a recording artist in the mariachi genre. Collaborating with the world-renowned Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán and musicians from Nuevo Tecalitlán, Mari has recorded her first album “Canciones Con Alma”, which launched December 2023, testament to her passion for cultural expression and musical artistry.

Prior to her latest venture, Mari held key positions such as Director of Marketing and Development, Academic Instructor at Geo Group, Inc., and Director of Communications for Huerta for Congress. As Community Education and Media Relations Manager at the Vascular and Leg Center, she strategized marketing and media campaigns, managed relations across outlets, and executed impactful TV and radio commercials.

In her role as Community Empowerment Manager at Univision Communications Inc., Mari played a pivotal role in developing marketing and promotion campaigns. Her responsibilities included executing corporate community empowerment initiatives and planning health fairs to raise awareness of crucial health issues within the community.

Mari’s impact extends beyond her professional roles into various board involvements. She is currently involved with Y2LEF (Youth to Leaders Education Foundation), Kern Alliance for Nonprofits (KAN), and serves as Co-chair of the Public Policy Committee for United Ways of California (UWCA) and recently joined the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce (GBCC). Additionally, she has been an integral part of organizations such as the Hispanic Excellence Scholarship Foundation (HESF), the Kern County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (KCHCC) and the Housing Authority Foundation of Kern.

Her outstanding contributions have not gone unnoticed, as Mari has been recognized with numerous awards and acknowledgments. These include the “Bakersfield Eagle Award” in 2015, “The Woman of The Year” Award in 2021 by Assemblymember Rudy Salas, the “Our Voice, Our Heroe” Award by Lotus Radio Bakersfield in 2022, the “Nonprofit of the Year” Award by Assemblymember Rudy Salas in 2022 and the “Latina in Business and Leadership” award in 2023.

With an impressive professional journey and a recent foray into the music industry, Mari Pérez-Dowling continues to inspire others through her dedication, leadership, and unwavering commitment to making a meaningful difference in the lives of those she serves.