Armando Contreras, a Phoenix Catholic who attends St. Francis Xavier Parish and sits on the diocesan finance council, took the reins of UCP National in June. (Photo courtesy of Armando Contreras)

Growing up in East Los Angeles, Armando Contreras never dreamed he’d one day stand at the helm of a national non-profit serving those with disabilities.

“I didn’t do this by myself,” Contreras said. “It’s not because of my degrees or my background or my experience, it was all because of the grace of God — He has opened up the doors.”

The soft-spoken St. Francis Xavier parishioner was named president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy National in June after serving seven years as the CEO of UCP of Central Arizona.

UCP National is the umbrella organization for 68 UCP affiliates that provide direct services to thousands of individuals with disabilities. Founded in 1949 by parents who did not want their children institutionalized, as many physicians recommended during that era, the national organization works to promote independence for the disabled.

It’s an issue Contreras holds close to his heart. His father, a businessman, was gravely injured in an automobile accident just before Contreras was born and was never able to work again. “We struggled a lot through our lives,” Contreras said.

Contreras earned a business degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in theology from the University of San Francisco and served seven years as the executive director of the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry. He currently serves on the diocesan finance council and has extensive experience in business and public policy. He was deputy director of the Arizona Registrar of Contractors and served as the Governor’s Small Business Advocate with the Arizona Department of Commerce.

During his tenure leading UCP of Central Arizona, the non-profit skyrocketed from a $10.1 million to a $15 million organization. Contreras insists it was a team effort.

EN ESPAÑOL: Católico local escogido como presidente y CEO de ‘UCP National’

Those displays customers see near the cash registers at Circle K stores that ask for donations to help UCP of Central Arizona? For the last 30 years, the jingle of spare coins that helps fund programming for the disabled has grown larger and larger. Contreras says the level of collaboration between UCP of Central Arizona and Circle K has grown too.

“It definitely went to a higher level of a collaboration and enhanced the partnership,” Contreras said. The new UCP Downtown is on the site of a former Circle K and across from a new Circle K store.

Through it all, Contreras learned to find God in the midst of his work. “You see God through the kids … you can learn from what their life is. They live in the present moment. I believe that it’s God’s moment.”

As he looks back over his years with UCP of Central Arizona, Contreras recalls Joaquin, a young man whose parents had been told would never walk or speak or run. At a gala for UCP of Central Arizona a few years ago, Contreras called the teen up to the podium.

“No crutches. No wheelchair — he can run and he was so articulate,” Contreras said. “He told his story. And it was an amazing story.” Like thousands of others, Joaquin benefitted from services provided by the organization.

Now, as CEO of UCP National, Contreras hopes to continue to elevate the nonprofit as well as take part in the national healthcare discussion. One of his goals is to heighten the trust and communication between the national organization and its affiliates.

Contreras’ blend of business, ministry and nonprofit expertise is something that hasn’t escaped the notice of Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.

“As a strong and compassionate leader here in Arizona, he has, for many years, used his many talents and God’s gifts of faith and charity to build up a culture of life that affirms the dignity and wellbeing of every person,” Bishop Olmsted said. “Now he will be in a position to accomplish even greater things for the glory of God and the common good.”

Chuck Smith, interim CEO of UCP of Central Arizona, also lauded Contreras’ leadership.

“I can’t imagine UCP National picking a better person to lead them at this point,” Smith said. “He is a man with great people skills, knowledge of the disability community’s needs and probably even more importantly, he’s a man of great integrity.”