BY SAM WATERSTONE | June 8, 2020
As our communities continue to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, relationships between local nonprofits and their leaders have never been stronger, according to Ernesto Parades, Executive Director of Easy Lift Transportation and a Trustee at the Santa Barbara Foundation.
“I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector here in Santa Barbara for 30 years and I’ve seen many community tragedies, whether it’s fire, floods, blackouts, mudslides, and now this pandemic,” Paredes explained. “We’ve seen it all. And there is always a common thread – [as a community], we need to communicate what people have and what people need. It goes back to relationships, and I’ve never seen the relationships as strong as they are right now.”
While Paredes has responded to many local disasters as a nonprofit leader, this is the first crisis situation that he has experienced since joining the Santa Barbara Foundation’s Board of Trustees. In this new role, Paredes has been impressed by the collaborative response from the Foundation and many of their key partners.
“The organizations I’ve worked for have been recipients of SBF grants for decades, but now to be on the Foundation side during a disaster, I’ve seen probably the best relationship between the Foundation, the United Way, Cottage Health, and Santa Barbara City College that I can ever recall,” said Paredes. “And that speaks volumes about the leadership of all these institutions, these large pillars in our community. They have the ability to really make things happen, especially when they work together to get things done.”
“Everything we do comes from a place of love for our community, and that drives us all to make sure that our impact is as large as possible,” shared Jackie Carrera, President & CEO at the Santa Barbara Foundation. “Having a Board made up of thoughtful, caring, well-connected individuals like Ernesto gives us the opportunity to pursue new partnerships and create innovative solutions to the challenges facing our county.”
Early on in the COVID-19 crisis, Carrera reached out to Paredes, who also serves on the Board of Directors at Cottage Health. She was exploring a potential partnership focused on creating face shields and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for local medical professionals, and wanted to collaborate with Cottage Health. Paredes was able to immediately connect her with Cottage Health Development Director, Dave Dietrich, to discuss ways they could work together.
Paredes is the ultimate connector, a leader who is easily accessible and exudes warmth. Above all else, he values relationships based on trust and humility, which he says are critical to the resilience of our communities. As the Executive Director of Easy Lift, Paredes has utilized the power of relationships to find solutions to pressing problems caused by the crisis.
For over 30 years, Easy Lift has been a vital part of the infrastructure of southern Santa Barbara County, providing specialized transportation for individuals and organizations that need to access essential programs and services. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Easy Lift outfitted its vans with protective shields that divide passengers from drivers. But when demand for the organization’s signature “Dial-A-Ride” program decreased by around 60 percent, Easy Lift shifted its services to meet the broader needs of the community.
Knowing that his friends at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County might need distribution support, Paredes offered to help them in any way possible. Early on, the Foodbank needed assistance in North County, so Easy Lift used its vans to transport bulk food from the Foodbank’s headquarters in Goleta up to Santa Maria, where it was packaged for individual drop-offs. Easy Lift then delivered those packaged drop-off food items in Lompoc, to seniors and people struggling with food insecurity.
In mid-April, the National Guard stepped in to assist the Foodbank, taking over Easy Lift’s food distribution efforts in North County. This allowed Easy Lift to pivot again to find more ways to support the community. This time, the organization partnered with the County of Santa Barbara to provide transportation for people experiencing homelessness.
“The County identified about 70 hotel rooms where they are now housing homeless individuals to help get them off the streets, to protect their health,” said Paredes. “They asked us to provide a shuttle for those individuals when they need to access health care or food, so that is what we’ve been doing.”
In addition to supporting housing services, Paredes became aware that HELP of Carpinteria, a volunteer-run transportation organization that has been around even longer than Easy Lift, also needed assistance.
“HELP has always been made up of volunteer drivers, but the challenge was that all of their drivers are seniors, who are part of the population especially vulnerable to COVID-19, so they had to shut down. That meant not being able to provide transportation to their constituents. So I contacted Judy Goodbody, the Executive Director of HELP – again, relationships – and said, ‘Judy, what do you need?’”
Easy Lift began transporting Carpinteria residents who typically count on HELP to get around. Because of the strong relationship between Easy Lift and HELP, these individuals are able to continue accessing food, health care and other essential services.
“The way we look at it, because of the support from foundations and donors, our vans belong to the community. We are just stewards of the vehicles, and we will shift to meet whatever the community’s needs are,” said Paredes.