Meet Jose: Living the sweet life

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.” - Forrest Gump

During a stay at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, Jose Solarzano met actor Tom Hanks, the Oscar-winning celebrity famous for that “box of chocolates” movie line.
And yes, Hanks even uttered the well-known quote when visiting Jose, who has an intellectual developmental disability: cerebral palsy.
In some ways, Jose’s life mirrors that of the fictional Forrest Gump.

“I grew up with (leg) braces and when I got my first pair of braces, that movie ‘Forrest Gump’ came out and his mom in the movie reminded me of my mom,” said Jose, a physical accessibility review survey specialist at Inland Empire Health Plan (IEHP). “And I used to be very, very sad … I wasn’t like the other kids. I would fall or trip; sometimes I would even have to use a wheelchair to move.”

Like the fictional Forrest, Jose’s story is filled with hope and inspiration.

  • In 2006, Jose completed his bachelor’s degree in Health and Human Services at California State University, Los Angeles.
  • In 2020, he was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the California State Independent Living Council. He also serves on the support team for the Inland Empire Disabilities Collaborative.
  • And on June 12, 2022, Jose was asked to deliver a commencement speech at Loma Linda University (LLU), where he earned a Community Health Worker certification. He was also the first individual with an intellectual developmental disability to graduate from the San Manuel Gateway College/LLU program.  

Admittedly, Jose, 39, experienced nerves about speaking in front of 500 people. Leading up to the big day, he prepared through meditation, taking deep breaths and listening to the same classical music he used to enjoy with his mother, who died on Jan. 20, 2022.

Jose remembers thinking about his mother when he was called up to the podium, asking her: “Be in my heart and tell me what to say.”

As if his mother may have heard that plea, Jose’s speech turned out wonderfully.

“I was excited and thrilled about giving a speech,” he said. “I focused on the importance of reflecting how important it is to improve the quality of life for others working in the field of community health.”


Today, Jose is a valued member of IEHP’s community health team – where he’s worked since 2017 – interacting with IEHP Members at public events throughout the Inland Empire.

But Jose knows firsthand the kinds of challenges the disabled population faces. After all, he’s personally faced a series of health issues related to his cerebral palsy: learning to walk with leg braces at the age of 3, seizures resulting from epilepsy and negative reactions to medications. Not to mention multiple hospital stays and the bullying in school.

“People with disabilities like myself … we’re seen as people that really can’t be progressive and basically, our only options are to be institutionalized or being imprisoned or not having equal resources like everyone else,” said Jose, whose determination helped overcome his challenges and his leg braces, which he stopped needing in 1997.

As a member of IEHP’s community health team, Jose shares his common experiences with other disabled people.

“The beautiful part of him being out in the community is the connection that he is able to have with the Members,” said Carmen Ramirez, manager IEHP Community Behavioral Health and Social Supports.

For Jose, a highlight of those connections centered on IEHP’s community efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through IEHP’s partnership with the Inland Empire Disabilities Collaborative, IEHP formed a COVID-19 response program to help Inland Empire residents meet the basic needs of food and access to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at a time when those items were so scarce.

“When I was able to make a difference in a family, it impacted me because I’m not a person with a disability – I’m just like everybody else,” said Jose, his voice quivering with emotion. “And I want to help people.”

Jose is committed to IEHP’s Mission, Vision and Values, always putting the Member at the center of his universe, according to Carmen.

“It always goes back to passion – and with Jose, you see it in his work, you see it in his words, you see it in his connections that he has within the community,” she said.

For Jose, it’s all about “doing the right thing,” which he says is built on trust.

“We have to make sure that we are doing everything in our power to do what we have to do to improve the quality for that specific Member,” he said. “Trust is always a big thing … you have to demonstrate that you’re keeping your word at all times.”


After his mother passed away, Jose set a goal to one day return to school and gain more professional work skills. Then, thanks to IEHP’s sponsorship, along came the chance to enter LLU-San Manuel Gateway College’s Community Health Care Worker certificate program.

At first, Jose wasn’t sure he could achieve his goal.

“I remember Jose sitting down with me … he’s like: ‘I don’t know if I can do it; I’ve heard that it’s very intensive,’” Carmen recalled. “And I said, ‘You’re not alone, it’s OK, we got you – we have your back, we’re going to help you get through these nine weeks.’”

During his commencement speech, Jose shared what that moment was like for him.

“When they called me in at IEHP and they said, ‘Hey, there’s an opportunity to go to Loma Linda University,’ that opened my heart,” he said.

So, Jose entered the program, putting trust in himself and the IEHP Team Members supporting his journey.

He credited Carmen for teaching him time management, so he could succeed at his regular, full-time job duties while adding more tasks as a student.

Standing before that captive audience in his cap and gown that summer day, Jose told them what completing this certification meant to him:

“I have the opportunity to do what I love to do and that is to serve people, help people, empower them, show them the right way.”

When he finished his speech at LLU, there was a huge round of applause and even a standing ovation.

As for the people who told Jose he would never have a so-called “normal life,” well, he gets the last line in that script.

“Growing up, they told me I wasn’t going to be able to have kids or I wasn’t going to get married – and now, I have three beautiful daughters and my wife,” said the proud husband of Adriana and father to Hilda, 15; Viviana, 13; and Fatima, 11. “Wow – that’s why life is always a box of chocolates … because you never know what you’re going to get.”

-View an inspirational video about Jose’s journey.