José Zambrano wants to make one thing clear: He is not a hero. Other than that I believed everything he said.
Zambrano is a firefighter in El Segundo, California, which is hero enough in my book, but he is also a dedicated fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and that launches “hero” into the stratosphere—a place where people typically add adjectives like “super” to the title—something that would, undoubtedly, make Zambrano incredibly uncomfortable.
Zambrano is a father in his early forties, and an athlete that competes in nearly 20 marathons (including ultramarathons) and triathlons per year while wearing full firefighting gear, nearly 50 pounds of it, to raise awareness and donations for St. Jude.
“But I don’t wear the gear when swimming or biking,” he pointed out with regard to the triathlons. “And I modified it so that now I wear running shoes instead of boots—call me crazy.”
He’s been called worse. While most people are inspired by Zambrano’s passion and tenacity, there have been detractors along the way. Also, patients. More than once Zambrano has stopped in the middle of the race to administer medical assistance to fellow athletes.
“Just because I’m not at work doesn’t mean I’m not a firefighter,” he said.
“I don’t have a lot of money, but you don’t need a lot of money to help others.”
I spoke with Zambrano, who competes as a fundraiser under the name “FiremanJoe,” by phone, and it only took a moment to realize that he is every bit as inspirational as you would hope him to be, despite his earnest denial to the contrary.
“The pain I go through [from racing in gear] is nothing compared to what the families, the children, go through . . . just to see a smile from the kids, that means a lot to me. That tells me it was worth it.”
Zambrano started competing in full gear to support the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, itself a very worthy cause, but when he learned that a friend’s 15-year-old daughter, Anissa Guerrero, who was around the same age as his own daughter, had died from cancer, he decided to honor her memory by running for St. Jude.
“Anissa helped other kids battle their cancer,” he said. “And another friend of mine, a firefighter in Hawaii, has a 2-year-old fighting cancer. I had to do something.”
This weekend the something that Zambrano is doing is racing in the Los Angeles Marathon on behalf of St. Jude.
“Running for St. Jude, I feel like I have more of a purpose, a way to give back to the community. I don’t have a lot of money, but you don’t need a lot of money to help others.”
If José Zambrano isn’t a hero, then I don’t know who is.
You can support FiremanJoe by donating to his St. Jude fundraiser page and/or stopping by the St. Jude booth in the L.A. Marathon Expo Hall on Saturday, February 13, 2016 (tentatively around 11:30 am), where he will be happy to tell you more about the good work that the research hospital is doing in the battle against childhood cancer. And while he is the last person that would ask for it or expect it, you might want to tell him “thank you,” because he certainly deserves that.
Thank you, FiremanJoe.
Photos used with permission from José Zambrano
Whit Honea is the co-founder of Dads 4 Change, the Social Media Director and Community Manager of Dad 2.0 Summit as well as a Senior Account Executive at the conference’s parent company: XY Media Group. Deemed “the activist dad” by UpWorthy (and one of the “funniest dads on Twitter” by Mashable), he is a regular contributor to The Modern Dads Podcast and the author of The Parents’ Phrase Book—a family guide to empathy.