Overcoming taboos

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By Armando A. Contreras

Philanthropy has many faces. To most, the term invokes an image of wealthy benefactors or corporate contributors donating to one or more of our community’s many worthy causes.

Less recognized are the millions of people who write modest checks or donate a few dollars now and again or even pocket change to their favorite charities. The organization I lead, United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona (UCP), serves children and adults with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism, developmental delays and learning disabilities.  UCP has been blessed over the years to be the beneficiary of millions in contributions in the form of the nickels, dimes and quarters that get dropped in canisters by generous customers at the counters of hundreds of Circle K stores statewide.

Yet, there is another type of giving back to our society that we rarely acknowledge. I’m talking about the love, gratitude and satisfaction the neediest among us give us in exchange for the emotional, spiritual and financial investments we make to our favorite charities.

At UCP of Central Arizona, I get to witness and experience this giving back every day through the eyes and expressions of the children and adults with special needs whom we help to live everyday lives. The joy that so many others and I in this field experience as a result of the work we do is a priceless gift. But even greater is the gift that special needs children and adults give back in the way of living life to the fullest and living in the present. It also is the legacy of the countless individuals and philanthropists who paved the way and bring hope to countless families and individuals with disabilities. 

The creation of United Cerebral Palsy is a case in point. The national organization was founded in 1949 by parents of children with this disability as a way to provide families with the information, resources and the courage it takes to meet the challenges associated with special needs children. The organization was created in the spirit of giving back. Its success has been thanks to an extraordinary group of courageous parents who managed to convince philanthropists to take note and support UCP’s mission.

As a Latino, giving back sometimes comes with unique challenges. A disability, of course, can affect any family regardless of their ethnicity or cultural or economic background. But among Latinos, especially those living in lower income brackets, the ability to help someone in our circle of friends or family who has special needs can be stymied by the unfortunate reality that disabilities still carry a taboo, namely because of the misperception that having a disabled family member is somehow shameful or even “God’s punishment” for some unspecified transgression.

Such taboos must be overcome. We cannot cloister ourselves in our communities, or worse, hide our children or other family members with disabilities in our homes based on unfounded fears. 

As is often stated, the first step to getting help requires a willingness to seek help. Overcoming taboos, thus, will require stepped-up education efforts in our community that teaches the understanding that a special needs family member, friend or neighbor should not be shunned and should be supported. 

In today’s hyper-paced world, there is still no greater satisfaction than getting involved in something greater than our own self-interest. At UCP of Central Arizona, our entire staff is inspired by the belief that everyone deserves to live “life without limits.”

Removing barriers for people with disabilities will only come as a result of the ability of our society to provide love and compassion to those less fortunate. In this holiday season, if you know someone with a disability, embrace them, hold them, offer them love and friendship, and you’ll experience the true meaning of philanthropy.  

Armando A. Contreras is the president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Central Arizona. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California and holds a master’s degree from the University of San Francisco. In the community, Armando serves on the boards of trustees of St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Phoenix Boys Choir. 

For more information about UCP of Arizona, visit or call 602-943-5472.

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