Ernesto Paredes of Easy Lift Transportation says community awareness is one of his nonprofit organization’s greatest challenges. “People see our vans on the road but don’t necessarily know what it’s all about,” he explains.  (Jenn Kennedy / Noozhawk photo)

Ernesto Paredes couldn’t be more aptly named. The earnestness embodied in Easy Lift Transportation’s executive director’s concern for the community moves front and center, as he sits down to talk with Noozhawk’s Leslie Dinaberg about his life and work in Santa Barbara.

Leslie Dinaberg: How has the economy affected your approach to nonprofit work?

Ernesto Paredes: I’m in my 20th year in the nonprofit sector in Santa Barbara and I’m having more fun now than ever before. The economic environment has forced me to find the leadership within me and how we can work closely together with organizations. That’s fun because it forces us to have face to face meetings with other executive directors … Once you have those relationships it’s amazing how many other things spur from that. We’ve created different programs because of it.

LD: Because of what other organizations are doing?

EP: Yes. At Easy Lift we have a growing group of individuals who are not frail enough for our Dial-A-Ride system but they are realistically not going to use the MTD bus, which is still a great system — it’s the best system in the country. But these other people still need to get around so we’ve started a new program called GAT, which stands for greatest generation-accessible transportation, and it’s focusing in on that group of people who still have transit needs. They still need to get to nutrition, medical appointments or social events, so this is something they are going to be able to access. It’s exciting for me to be able to introduce this new program.

LD: Those are senior services?

EP: Yes. It’s a spin-off of a program we started two years ago called, CAT, children’s accessible transportation. We recognized there were a lot of great children-serving programs and their biggest challenge was to get transportation. Unlike the Boys & Girls Club or Girls Inc. or the PAL program that have their own vehicles, all of these other programs don’t have vehicles and were dependent on parents getting their kids to the programs.

There are pockets in this community where parents are working and can’t pick their kids up after school. So we created this one vehicle that’s called CAT and all we do is provide transportation for other people’s programs. We have an understanding with the organizations. They refer to us the kids they’ve identified as the most transit-needy, we put them in our matrix of services and then we go pick people up, take them to the location of services, and the bus immediately goes somewhere else, taking another group of kids. That way all of those organizations don’t have to get in the transit business.

LD: That’s great. I’ve noticed with camps this summer that a lot of them that used to offer early care and later care for working parents aren’t offering those services now.

EP: That’s exactly it. We’re lucky to get our initial funding grant from the Orfalea Foundations for this pilot project.

LD: It seems like there’s a good environmental benefit from that, too.

EP: Exactly. One vehicle as opposed to a bunch. Right now there are about 13 organizations that we’re providing transportation for. We’re not solving all of their transit needs, but a good chunk of them.

That’s really important, as is the need for building advocacy on behalf of the nonprofit world. When funding gets cut — government funding through cities, counties or anyone else — it’s tough when an organization’s executive director has to go to that body or group and advocate on behalf of their own organization. Sometimes it can seem very self-serving, as opposed to an advocacy group that comes together and is saying we’re looking out for the best interests of the sector — all of the organizations, not just one organization or another.

I’m trying to create a more consolidated group so we can have more influence and educate, especially incoming board members and incoming supervisors and incoming city council members. Get them up-to-date about the nonprofit world.

LD: Who are the core people that Easy Lift serves?

EP: The qualification for our Dial-A-Ride service is pretty simple. It’s for individuals who can’t either physically drive or cognitively can’t get to the MTD bus. … It’s not based on income; it’s not based on anything other than what their transit need is.

Most of our clients, about 75 percent, are frail seniors. About 25 percent to 30 percent are people with severe disabilities, either wheelchair users or people who are using walkers.

LD: They’re eligible whether they’re going to a friend’s house or the doctor?

EP: Exactly. It’s anywhere between Winchester Canyon and Carpinteria, all of south Santa Barbara County. It’s $3.50 a ride. … It costs us about $53 a ride when you take into consideration maintenance and the cost of the staff, the driver and all the insurance. So we have to fundraise for the rest of that. We just celebrated our 30th year this past year, so we’ve been doing this a long time.

LD: Congratulations.

EP: It’s been great. When I left, I left after 10 years to be executive director at CASA of Santa Barbara County (Court-Appointed Special Advocates) and that was an eye-opening experience because I got to see a different side of our community — in this case, the foster-care system and the challenges. Especially having kids in a healthy household, you appreciate that and you realize there are so many kids who just don’t have that.

The whole CAT program was initiated because I thought there are kids who really need to get to counseling at CALM (Child Abuse Listening & Mediation) who aren’t getting there on a regular basis. So if we can do that, that could help a lot of kids, and it’s been great.

LD: How do people usually find out about you?

EP: That’s one of our greatest challenges. People see our vans on the road but don’t necessarily know what it’s all about. They don’t realize we’re a nonprofit charity and they don’t realize we’re out there for them. The vans are starting at 5:30 in the morning and going until 11:30 at night every single day of the year. We’re only closed two days a year : Christmas and New Year’s.

LD: Given the growth in the senior population, Easy Lift is probably even more relevant now than when it started.

EP: It’s huge. That’s a challenging thing, too. We all have either read or heard about the statistics about the growing seniors and the silver tsunami, as it’s been affectionately called, yet a lot of our dollars are still focusing in on kids programs. Rightfully so; they are the future. Yet there are a lot of senior programs that are really hurting and really doing phenomenal work, and sometimes having a more immediate impact than a lot of other programs that are targeted for youth. I think a lot of our youth programs could be and should be working together rather than so many individual ones. That’s a tough one to solve.

LD: It’s a really tough one.

EP: There are a lot of people in the nonprofit world who say we need more representation on the Board of Supervisors or council. We should have one of our own run and we would all support that individual.

LD: That’s interesting you say. Are you interested in running for office?

EP: It’s on the radar. I’ve thought about it many times. At this point, I want my kids to be a little bit older because I’ll have plenty of time and I want to be able to truly commit to the decision I make if I do run. That’s a full-time job. But it’s the best way to have influence and be able to advocate for your community.

LD: You are also involved with other organizations. I know you mentioned you were going to a Special Olympics meeting today.

EP: I’ve enjoyed my opportunity to work with Special Olympics and being chairman of its leadership committee because, again, Special Olympics is one of those organizations that is a household name, but on a local level it’s a small organization and it doesn’t get that national support that people may think it gets. So they are fighting for every nickel and dime and dollar like everybody else. I’m also on the board of the Nonprofit Support Center. I like that because it’s helping other brother organizations help do what they do better. … It’s the old Larry Crandell theory of we get that psychic income from helping out.

LD: Did you always know you wanted to do nonprofit work?

EP: I always wanted to help people. I wanted to be a doctor. Math crushed me. That was the hardest part because I always knew I wanted to help people. When I went to USC, I took a class in gerontology as an elective and that changed my life. I got to see the history and the richness that older people have and the experiences that we are all learning about.

LD: After USC did you come back to Santa Barbara immediately?

EP: I chased a girl. We met when I was at USC and she graduated and came to Santa Barbara for a job. When I graduated I thought I’d come to Santa Barbara for a while and see how this relationship works out. Twenty years later we’re still married!

LD: What do you do when you’re not working?

EP: We just got a new dog so we love having a new dog. But what I really love to do is triathlons. I’m currently training for Kona. That will be my sixth Ironman. Getting into Kona for me was a dream. I’ve been training like a crazy person.

Something I’ve learned about triathlon training and Ironman triathlon training: I’m not necessarily a gifted athlete but I love to mentally figure out how I’m going to get through that.

I’ve been in so many positions in my life professionally that I’ve been able to draw on that experience of being in the water with 2,000 other athletes right before the gun goes off and thinking, “Oh, my God, what am I doing here?” And I have a great, supportive wife who allows me that time to chase a dream, which is great.

LD: That’s awesome.

EP: It’s also so fun with my kids. Seeing my son develop from a little boy into a young man is absolutely surreal. And my little daughter … I mean, I always say I feel badly for fathers who never had the chance to have a daughter. I’ve never been in a band, but every day I come home and I’m a rock star because my daughter just loves me.

LD: (Laughs) That may change in a few years.

EP: I know. I’m not looking forward to that.

Vital Stats: Ernesto Paredes

Born: Jan. 26, 1966, in Pittsburg in the East Bay, moved to Santa Barbara at age 4

Family: Wife Jenifer, son Peyton, 16, and daughter Reyna will be 12 next month

Civic Involvement: Special Olympics, Nonprofit Support Center, CASA of Santa Barbara County

Professional Accomplishments: Executive director of Easy Lift Transportation, former executive director of CASA of Santa Barbara County

Best Book You’ve Read Recently: Tupac Shakur: The Life and Times of an American Icon by Tayannah Lee McQuillar and Fred L. Johnson

Favorite Local Spot: “Being a triathlete, I love Leadbetter Beach. That’s my starting point and ending point for all of my runs or swims.”

Little-Known Fact: “The only thing that comes to mind, which I talk about, is my desire to run for local politics.”

Noozhawk contributor Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at