June 27, 2024
Estimated Read Time: 10 min.

Changemaker Spotlight Series – Armando Contreras, United Cerebral Palsy

Welcome to Strat Labs’ Changemaker Spotlight Series! This blog series is dedicated to showcasing the inspiring journeys of remarkable individuals who have transformed their passions into purposeful endeavors, leaving a significant impact on the world around them every single day. Join us as we delve into the heart of innovation and commitment, celebrating the extraordinary stories of those who are not just dreaming of a better future but actively shaping it in their journey as a changemaker.


Armando Contreras is the President and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy Inc, the nation’s leading organization advocating and promoting inclusion for people with cerebral palsy and many other disabilities. A native of Los Angeles, California, Armando’s professional career includes serving as the CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona, as the President and CEO of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (AZHCC), and as the Director of the Arizona Registrar of Contractors and the Executive Director of the Governor’s Council on Small Business under former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano.


What inspired you to embark on your journey in the social impact space?

Social impact has been part of my life’s journey. I grew up in East Los Angeles in a very poor family. My dad had a disability, so he couldn’t work. There was a lot of need in the Los Angeles area for education, jobs, and services. For example, the school I attended was not preparing us as Mexican Americans to go to college.

I started volunteering for St. Lucy’s Catholic Church in Los Angeles, where the priests were community activists. Through this volunteerism, I got involved in community needs, such as immigration issues, education, feeding the poor, and housing. 

Then, in the mid-80s, I got accepted to the University of Southern California (USC) School of Business and was elected president of the USC Latino Student Assembly. Some of our biggest successes during my time with the organization were raising $10,000 for a major earthquake in Mexico and advocating for workers’ rights in Los Angeles.

After graduating with a BA in Business Administration, I worked for a nonprofit that provided jobs in the community. This experience made me aware of the need for jobs and services in our community, resulting in my continuous involvement in social impact.

Throughout everything I’ve done, from business to nonprofits to government, I have always advocated for social impact.


Can you describe how you and/or your organization are making a significant social impact?

At UCP National, we own and protect the intellectual property of United Cerebral Palsy, UCP, Life Without Limits for People with Disabilities, and other marks. Celebrating our 75th anniversary this year, we support 56 affiliates in the U.S. and two international members in Canada, all providing vital direct services. Over the past seven years, we’ve stabilized our finances, moving out of an expensive office and outsourcing functions to save money. This shift restored trust with our affiliates, who actively participate in our initiatives, strategic planning, and committees.

Our four primary goals are brand awareness, development, advocacy, and expanding our footprint in areas in the United States where we are not present. We’ve increased our advocacy efforts on Capitol Hill and secured funding for our publication, Case for Inclusion, highlighting critical issues like waiting lists for services and the workforce crisis. We’re also focused on growing our network, particularly aiming to establish a presence in underserved areas like Texas.

Our mission centers around our affiliates’ diverse services, including early intervention, employment, housing, day programs for children and adults with disabilities, and many other services. These programs are unique to each location. One example is integrating children with and without disabilities in pre-K schools to foster advocacy and inclusion from a young age. Our challenge has been to communicate that we serve individuals with various disabilities beyond cerebral palsy. This has led us to a brand refresh, focusing on broadening our recognition as UCP to better represent our inclusive mission.


In your opinion, what are some emerging trends or innovations in your industry that have the potential to drive significant change?

In my opinion, one emerging trend is the growing recognition that people with disabilities are an integral part of society and the economy. They bring immense value to the nation, families, communities, and schools, particularly through their contributions to the workforce. Education about this reality is crucial, as there remains a significant lack of understanding among many citizens. We must see more people with disabilities in public spaces, such as parks and movie theaters, as well as in jobs and leadership positions. This increased visibility will create a better world for everyone.

Thanks to organizations like United Cerebral Palsy, Easter Seals, Goodwill, SourceAmerica, and advocacy groups like ANCOR, Accses, and NACDD, people are becoming more involved in their communities. However, we need more funding from the government, the corporate world, individual donors, and private foundations to sustain and expand these positive trends. We all must work together to ensure we can continue providing services that promote independence and integrate people with disabilities into everyday life.


How do you define “Changemaker”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Somebody that takes risks. A person who brings issues to the table, regardless of whether they’re popular or unpopular. A changemaker does not just speak for the marginalized, the disability community, the hungry, or those hated, but instead creates a space for them to speak. As CEOs and organizational leaders, our job is to provide an opportunity for the disability community to share their stories and advocate. 


What is UCP doing in honor of their 75th anniversary?

Right now, after 75 years, we’re focused on letting the community and nation know about our affiliates’ services. This is a huge opportunity to let people know who we are and what we do.

Obviously, this has a budget impact. We’re not a billion-dollar organization. We’ve done well, but marketing can be expensive, so we’re trying to use digital platforms to message who UCP is as a network. We’re also looking at influencers to take our message out there. We’re investing more than ever, but we’re also trying to be efficient and smart to get the word out during this 75th anniversary on a national and global level.


Can you tell us about a project or initiative you’re particularly proud of and its impact on the community or issue it addresses?

One of the things that we’re doing that is important not just on a national level but globally is early detection. Early detection has been a challenge for many years, especially in cerebral palsy. It should be detected as soon as possible, and scientists are working on it.

I was honored to be invited to a virtual discussion with leaders from the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the International Cerebral Palsy Society. In this discussion,  I brought up the topic of early detection. I believe that United Cerebral Palsy is a leader in breakthroughs and also a leader in looking at this type of science that will be changing the world and the world of disabilities.


What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own journey as a changemaker within the social impact space?

Don’t forget that a business element is part of it. Financial sustainability is key.  Unfortunately,  some organizations are unsustainable and will inevitably fall into financial trouble. Make sure you plan for sustainability for anybody wanting to start an organization, whether it is a nonprofit or for-profit.

Additionally, if your vision is to do something impactful and to make a difference in someone’s life, ask  yourself: “Do you really want to reinvent the wheel, or do you want to partner or get involved with that organization already making an impact?”

Lastly, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and have different talents. Building trust, providing a high level of engagement, messaging, and staying aligned with your mission and vision is key to success.


Why should people pay attention to the issues you work on?

Not advocating for the disability community may lead to not increasing the services for people with disabilities, especially adults. We continue to face several challenges such as increasing job opportunities, access to higher education, access to transportation and building, and providing better therapies, just to mention a few. The extreme, if we ignore this vibrant community, may lead us back to having institutions overseeing the disability community’s needs.  

We must also bring awareness and the message that the disability community is no different. They are part of the fabric of society and make a positive difference. Our country would be way better off if the disability community were really involved in a greater way. I hope to see that happen exponentially. At the end of the day, we want people with disabilities to have everything that others have: care, joy, and love, as well as access to education and careers. We need to be those advocates and provide that voice so they can tell us their story.


To learn more about the impactful and important work that United Cerebral Palsy is doing, visit their website at www.ucp.org

Curious if there’s a UCP affiliate that serves your area? You can search at www.ucp.org/find-us

If you are interested in connecting with Armando Contreras to learn more about his changemaker journey, you can contact him at acontreras@ucp.org or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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