If you want something bad enough, you can achieve it

It took Ed Zavala ten years to get his bachelor’s degree–a fact he acknowledges at one time was difficult to admit. “When I first started speaking with youth groups,” Zavala said, “I had no idea what I could say that might resonate with them.”

Ed would eventually recall his days of teaching, and embrace the preconceived notions he had about himself, and focus on being honest with those with whom he spoke. “My parents always instilled in us the importance of education. After raising four boys , my mom went to college part-time at age 55, she received her master’s degree at the age 66, and was hired as a full-time social worker, working until she was 78.” A student of life, Zavala shares his struggles and successes with those around him so they might be able to identify through their own adversities, and so they might learn from his own experience.

What you do with your pain and adversity defines your direction

Zavala has found value in the inward journey when confronting the difficulties of life. When he lost his father, though the pain was overbearing, Ed found solace by embracing and honoring his father’s memory. Through other struggles with those closest to him, Ed realized the importance of not only maintaining a positive temperament, but also focusing on becoming a better listener. “I realized that, even though I couldn’t fix everything, I could still be a source of strength and comfort,” said Zavala. It is this attitude Ed brings to the table, literally, when he meets with Nashville youth.

Putting your talents to use with others

Zavala-PhotoZavala quickly put his talents to work by initiating and supporting several non-profit efforts throughout his career. Disillusioned by the bureaucracy and politics of larger non-profit organizations, he sought advice from a close friend. His friend reminded him of why he was a volunteer for non-profits and he challenged Ed by asking him if he left the non-profit then who will be left to “fight the good fight” for the nonprofit’s cause and mission. This led Zavala to continue his community service. His professional work took him from San Diego to Cincinnati, and ultimately to Nashville in 2003, where he accepted a position as Administrator of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center and a Vanderbilt University faculty appointment as Research Associate Professor.

Eager to continue service work, Ed joined the board of YMCA Latino Achievers (YLA) in 2008 – a program focused on college access, youth leadership, and empowerment. He is now the Board’s Chair. “We focus on results,” said Zavala, “…and I am proud to say that the program has a 100% high school graduation rate, and through the efforts of everyone involved, we awarded 53 college scholarships in 2015.”

YMCA Latino Achievers is a youth outreach program of the YMCA of Middle Tennessee. YLA is now active in seven high schools in Middle Tennessee. Students receive enrichment opportunities, such as ACT preparation classes, college and university campus tours, career path awareness, leadership building, and community service events. College students active in YLA facilitate and participate in these opportunities with their younger high school peers.


One of Zavala’s favorite ways to engage the youth of YLA is by visiting high schools and talking with students, and he often works one-on-one with students, helping them to identify a direction, and showing them there is value in all work. A strong proponent of the YLA’s philosophy, “Every child has a purpose. We’re committed to helping them find it,” Ed focuses on alleviating fears and confusion as our youth embrace more active roles in our communities.

YMCA Volunteer Opportunities

Find out more about YLA at ymcamidtn.org/usydc/programs/latino-achievers and more about additional volunteer opportunities at ymcamidtn.org.

“We all go through hills and valleys,” says Ed, “It’s a matter of maintaining a positive attitude and learning as we go through the great adventure of life.”



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Marcel Hernandez

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