“I don’t believe in titles, I believe in work.”
This statement, in response to a question about his official title, neatly encapsulates Armando Zambrano’s abiding philosophy of life. It also reflects his modesty. Zambrano, the director of annual support programs at the foundation at Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas, is passionate about his work’s impact on the lives of countless area children and hopeful about the future of pediatric care in Central Texas. He’s also, despite a very demanding schedule, the kind of guy who is always in a good mood.
“It seems like I’m the one interviewing you, right?” Zambrano says jokingly, about 15 minutes in to our initial conversation, seated at what could be the world’s longest conference room table (around the corner from his office) at the Dell Children’s Medical Center.
And ask away he did, displaying a candor, a zeal for connectivity and a thirst for knowledge that is palpable. Zambrano – a self- described extrovert – took time out to speak with his assistant about ongoing projects and introduced his team at the foundation. Frequently punctuated by fits of laughter, humorous asides and occasional digressions, his answers reflect that of a self-confident man at ease with his decisions and fulfilled by life’s work.
The Dell Children’s Medical Center provides myriad medical services and programs to children from birth through the age of 17 in the 46-county region of Central Texas, an area larger than the state of Ohio. In fiscal year 2009, Dell Children’s had more than 98,000 patient visits and provided more than $22 million in charity care to the children of Austin and Central Texas. Dell Children’s was recently certified as the only level 1 pediatric trauma Center in Central Texas and one of only 18 in the United States, meaning that the center provides the highest level of multidisciplinary, specialty- trained, around-the-clock care to children who have been victims of trauma. Its first year saw 770 trauma cases versus a projected 500 cases. The Texas Child Study Center, a partnership with the University of Texas, serves the needs of children and adolescents with emotional, developmental and behavioral challenges. It’s the first of its kind in Texas, and the center has seen more than 600 patients in its first year.
None of this would even be possible without the diligence of Zambrano, who oversees all of the annual fundraising efforts for the center.
“Any programs that we have, we’re the catalyst,” he says.
Zambrano manages any special events, mailings, direct outreach through the center’s recently revamped website, and more. In early 2008, the Dell Children’s Gala, which is one of the most successful galas in Central Texas, raised $1.1 million from more than 1,100 attendees.
Zambrano, the youngest of nine children, grew up in the small town of La Feria in South Texas, and considers himself a true product of his family, noting that the values of family and hard work were instilled in him from an early age. His close relationship with his mother, and his respect for her life choices, is also part of what drives him.
“My mother is an amazing, prideful lady who does not accept the status quo,” Zambrano says. “She always asks questions. I think that’s where I got that from.”
His journey to this moment has been atypical, perhaps, but always motivated by an abiding desire to give back to the community. Growing up in a family of migrant workers, Zambrano moved around a lot as a child, traveling from Colorado, to Michigan, to Ohio. Working in the fields during the day each year meant finishing his education at night. Upon graduating from high school, he received a scholarship to St. Edward’s University, where he studied marketing and business administration. A longtime arts aficionado, Zambrano also took voice and diction classes at St. Edward’s and was involved in their drama department.
“It helped me transition in to my professional life,” he says.
While attending St. Edward’s, Zambrano was a bellman at the Radisson Hotel. He worked his way up through several promotions and ended up leaving the company six years later as the director of sales. After a stint as a sales manager at the Austin Convention & Visitors bureau, which represents Austin for conventions and tourism throughout the world, Zambrano worked as the associate director of marketing.
“Then I met this amazing lady by the name of Pebbles Wadsworth,” Zambrano says of the former director of UT’s performing Arts Center. Wadsworth later asked him to join the arts council at the PAC. “Pebbles and I became really good friends. That was a truly transformational time.”
Zambrano worked as director of development for UT’s Performing Arts Center, which is one of the largest and most respected arts institutions of its kind in the country.
“It’s really about working for the arts and appreciating everything that the arts represent for a community,” he says.
More than a year and a half ago, Zambrano decided he wanted to see what else was out there. He wanted to be a part of the transformation of life. He did some work with an organization called Christopher House, which, at that time, was an HIV/AIDS hospice. He also dabbled in health services and human rights, working briefly with the Human Rights Campaign.
“Giving back and being a part of something greater has been so important for me,” Zambrano says, noting that he immediately saw the impact that the center was having in the community. “The beautiful part is that I was here a year and a half after they opened. I love creating and building things.”
For Zambrano – who shares a 1932 bungalow with his partner of nine years, Bryan Gardner, and their beloved dog, Zoe – the children who benefit from the center’s programs are like surrogates.
“I have 33 nieces and nephews. I don’t have kids of my own,” he says. “I felt as if being here, like these are kind of my kids. I want to facilitate programs for them to live healthy lives.”
Zambrano and his partner initially met at the Terry Fox Run in Austin and were later introduced by a mutual friend at a post-run breakfast at the Four Seasons, which is where Gardner works as the director of human resources. But their eventual connection grew and deepened in to something long-lasting and meaningful.
To call Zambrano a people person is an understatement throughout his life, he’s constantly been surrounded by lots of people, which suits him just fine. For such a busy man, it’s how he stays plugged-in.
“That’s how I get my energy,” he says, noting that his partner is the opposite, preferring his time to himself. “That’s just the balance of a relationship.”
The purchase of their current home was fortuitous. After living in Circle C for a few years but wanting to move back closer to downtown, Zambrano was driving around one day and saw a cute house in Clarksville. Gardner, it turns out, was looking at that very house online the same day. They hired an architect in December and are adding another floor.
“Bryan and I like projects,” he adds. “I think what we had before was a house where we put stuff. What we’re doing now is building a home that will represent our relationship.”
Of course, friends of theirs started having babies and three friends also adopted. Coming from such a large family, Zambrano is at ease around children. His work brings out his paternal instincts.
“How beautiful is the fact that now, if anything ever does happen to them – God forbid – this place is here for them,” Zambrano says, adding that, were it not for Dell Children’s, many families needing this care would have to pick up and move to Houston or Dallas.
It is Dell Children’s Medical Center’s unique, holistic approach to healing children that also appeals to Zambrano. Their focus is not simply on healing the physical self, but also the emotional, intellectual and spiritual self. They have an active art-therapy program; more than 850 pieces of art are housed in the center, the largest art collection in a non-museum facility in Central Texas. Art therapists work with children to uncover what they are going through by examining their drawings or paintings.
“When I saw that, I thought, that’s beautiful,” Zambrano says.
Beyond its leadership in the holistic approach to children’s health care, the center has been designated as the world’s first and only LEED-certified platinum hospital by the United States Green building Council. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the internationally recognized standard for design, construction and maintenance of green buildings.
“The thing is, if it’s good for the earth,” he says, “it’s good for our kids.”
The 500,000-square-foot center, which opened in June 2007, features a wide range of local and renewable materials; on-site wastewater facilities and windows that open, allowing fresh air to become an alternative to energy-consuming air conditioning; along with low-rise, courtyard-linked buildings, which are designed to be child-friendly and serene.
A Catalyst For Change
Over the course of several conversations, Zambrano says he’s not a fan of the status quo.
He also doesn’t believe in working at an organization unless he can bring about change. This has served him well throughout his career; it’s also an abiding facet of who he is and what makes him tick.
When he started with Dell Children’s in 2008, he saw the organization’s annual gala as a fundraiser, certainly, but also as a great opportunity to emphasize the positive impact of all the programs that Dell Children’s offers to the community. The center had been opened a year and a half prior to that, so it was still a relatively new entity in people’s minds. Zambrano decided to share some powerful stories with the attendees as a way of explaining the center’s mission and what it does for tens of thousands of children in Central Texas.
“I think it becomes real to people when they see a face,” he says. “Maybe they can put themselves in their shoes.”
He played a short impact video telling the stories of three children, their families and how Dell Children’s had a transformative impression on their lives. It’s the kind of film that probably didn’t leave too many dry eyes in the room.
Zambrano sees this year’s Children’s Council Gala, which will be held in the Austin Convention Center’s grand ballroom on Jan. 23, as a chance for the organization to be proud of its accomplishments, and to put on a spectacular, exciting event for everyone who chooses to attend. Features of the gala will include a cocktail reception and dinner, a live and silent auction, live music and fun activities, and an after-party hosted by Trio at the Four Seasons.
“I feel like I’m a Broadway producer,” Zambrano says, laughing. He’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz, sometimes operating behind the scenes but always knowing exactly what to do. “The great thing is, the money’s going to stay here locally.”
There is no typical workday, according to Zambrano, who directly oversees seven coworkers. Is he a demanding boss? Definitely. He’s also humble and he gives credit not only to the quality of his team at Dell Children’s, but also to the people who have mentored him over the years. He describes the unpredictability of his work as fun and considers himself to be very blessed.
A 12-year-old oncology patient who is going to be featured in one of the new impact videos being shown at this year’s gala was asked by Zambrano about what was the hardest part of being diagnosed with cancer.
She says, “Having cancer wasn’t that big of a deal. I think as I grow older and grow up, I’m going to deal with harder things than cancer.”
“That inner strength that a child has is so amazing to me,” Zambrano says. The child, who is now cancer-free, says the hardest part was watching her mother go through the ordeal. “Now she’s living her life again and Dell Children’s was there to support that.”
One day for Zambrano could involve meeting with potential donors or sponsors of an event, the next he could be making a speech at a benefit such as the Runway to Heaven Charity Fashion Show.
“When you deal with so many outside influences – donors, corporations, individuals – it’s day to day,” he says, reveling in the social aspects of his job.
Zambrano is nothing if not a connector and a social butterfly. His partner calls him a “social eagle,” he tells me, laughing. When he’s in the room, whether it’s a donor event or a business meeting or a luncheon with the Junior League, you can feel his energy radiating outward. Confident and always smiling, his friendly demeanor and outgoing nature are perfectly suited to his job.
The center has a program called Child Life, which assists patients and their families in explaining exactly what’s happening with a patient. This goes well beyond the clinical aspect to encompass a holistic approach to that child’s overall transformation to being a healthy kid again, emotionally and socially. The day earlier, Zambrano met with a father whose daughter was checking out of the facility.
“His daughter felt comfortable, at ease and never alone,” Zambrano says. “That’s the thing about fundraising, whether it be for the arts or health care or anything. It’s about making the person feel that they are a part of something greater.”
The dad was so grateful and he wanted to give back. He ended up chatting with Zambrano for an hour. That’s the kind of guy Zambrano is; if he connects with someone, be it professionally or personally, he’ll make time for them in his life.
“I’m just the catalyst to help make it happen in some ways,” Zambrano says. “I’m connecting people to what they feel is a stronger purpose in their life.”
Through it all, Zambrano manages to stay uniquely grounded. Running around Town Lake, and partaking in events like the Turkey Trot, walking his dog and practicing yoga regularly are activities that center him.
“It’s my little escape for myself,” he says. “Sometimes the high- light of my day is to take Zoe for a walk.”
Like many other organizations, Dell Children’s is operating in a different place financially than it was prior to the recession. Under Zambrano’s leadership, however, the organization has managed to adapt to the ever-shifting economic landscape.
“People are selecting and choosing what they want to be a part of and looking at every aspect of an organization and its impact,” Zambrano says.
He has observed a kind of micro-philanthropy developing, basically a larger base of donors giving smaller amounts of money during a period of time.
“People can give what they can,” he says. “It can really build an amazing organization.”
Besides the annual gala, the foundation also conducts outreach and events with many different constituencies. It hosts a radiothon with 98.1 KVET, a local country radio station; last year, partnering with KVET, it raised more than $400,000, with 60 percent of that coming from areas outside of Austin. The foundation also hosted its first Spanish-speaking radiothon in August, partnering with border media to raise more than $150,000. Events such as these – and willingness on Zambrano’s part to think differently and make new and innovative connections – have enabled the foundation to broaden its reach and raise funds.
Despite the challenging economic climate, Zambrano and his team are hitting their goals while continuing to advance the mission of Dell Children’s Medical Center. The annual support programs at Dell Children’s, including activities and special events, must raise half of all the money that’s raised each year. These programs used to account for about 20 percent, but because corporate donations have gone down, annual support has had to make up the difference.
“People are being very selective, and I don’t blame them,” Zambrano says. “They’re businesspeople and it’s a reality that we have to face.”
Aside from his work with Dell Children’s, Zambrano is also involved with the march of dimes. He served on the committee for their Signature Chef event last year. Formerly on the board of the Mexi-Carte Museum, Zambrano is also supportive of Project Transitions and the Human Rights Campaign. And he’s excited to be working with his friends Bobbi Topfer and Patty Huffines on the long Center’s upcoming second anniversary event, featuring Hall and Oates.
When he worked with the Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, Zambrano represented the city at the international Sister Cities Conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Ann Richards, the governor of Texas at the time, was there to speak on behalf of the state. The governor and Zambrano did a formal presentation together, as part of Austin’s bid to host the organization’s annual conference here, onstage in front of 500 people.
“Here I am, this person of Mexican descent, going to Mexico – a country that’s my homeland – bidding on a conference with Ann Richards. I have an amazing connection with San Miguel now,” he says, noting that he visits the city, located in the Easter part of Guanajuato, twice a year now. “It’s a place where I go to reenergize. I take my books and my Vanity fairs and I do nothing but read and drink margaritas.”
He gains strength from his partner, family, friends and his spirituality.
“My family loves me unconditionally; it’s how I grew up,” Zambrano says. “There are no ifs or buts about it, that’s the core.”
Zambrano relates a story about his mother that will clearly always resonate.
“One day I was getting off the bus from school in Colorado – we worked in these tall fields – and all I see is this woman in a straw hat coming to find me. She’s out there in the middle of the summer heat, working, and it’s 2 o’clock and I’m coming to help work until 6 or 7. It seemed like she was running. My mom does not run. That, to me, is my mom.”
This scene repeated itself over a period of six or seven years. Comforted by this, Zambrano always knew that no matter what the family was struggling with or how hard times might have been financially or otherwise, his mother was always looking for him after school. It was this sense of home and the ongoing support that came along with it that has driven him his entire life.
“My mother is my hero,” Zambrano says, his eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “Having raised eight boys and one girl, who does that? It’s the most unselfish act.”
When he speaks about having a support system behind him, he means family and friends. “Throughout my life I have been very fortunate to have people around me who believe in me and in my potential.”
“I just remember that I never wanted to be left behind, in a sense, in school,” Zambrano says. “I wanted to come back and always be prepared for my classes. My brothers said, ‘if he wants to go to school, let him go.’ So I went to school at night and worked all day.”
He sees himself and his work as having had an impact in the Austin community and it’s something he’s proud of. “Wherever I am, I want to be at a place where I am able to be valued at an organization, create impact, but also have impact in my life as well, and respect the organization and be respected.”
Last year, Dell Children’s saw 200 patients from Cameron County, which is the county where Zambrano grew up. “The essence and beauty of that fact is that, in some ways, being here is still helping my family,” he says. “It’s a closing of the circle.”