From Local Kid to Social Sector Leader

By Nick Schou   |   November 4, 2021

Easy Lift Transportation Executive Director Ernesto Paredes remembers his earliest experience volunteering as a young kid in Santa Barbara. Growing up on the south side of town as a child of public education and community-based sports, Paredes briefly joined the Cub Scouts, which was a catalyst for his early interest in volunteering. “It was a good organization, but wasn’t the right fit for me,” Paredes recalls. “However, it introduced me to volunteering and to the Goleta Boys & Girls Club and lifetime mentor Sal Rodriguez. The club became my second home.”

Paredes – whose professional career now revolves around providing services to the elderly and people living with disabilities – believes that his adult path in life as an active participant in the city’s nonprofit community began early on. “I was in the track club and went by San Marcos [High School] one Saturday and the local Special Olympics was doing an event.” From that moment on, Paredes was hooked on the concept of helping the disabled and disadvantaged in his community. “I saw what this event was doing not only for the athletes, but the families that appreciated it and the ripple effect and the pride they had,” he says. “These were individuals you didn’t see in the community that often because there was still a stigma [about disability] back then. I realized that even though people didn’t seem to value these individuals, there is still a place for them.”

Despite his keen interest in sports, while graduating from San Marcos in 1984, Paredes realized that playing professionally wasn’t in his future. “I recognized that I wasn’t going to compete at college level,” he says. “I worked on my grades and thrived at Santa Barbara City College, and that’s where I developed my confidence.”

It was during this time that Paredes says his eyes were opened to another option when he found a job at what was then called the Rehabilitation Institute of Santa Barbara (now known as Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital) on De La Vina Street. “That was where I developed my affinity for working with seniors,” Paredes says. “There were a lot of people recovering from strokes or who had diabetes and were recent amputees. I realized that this group of people – frail seniors with the stories they had of living through the Great Depression – these individuals had the same interests I had, and their minds and spirits were right there with the rest of us.”

Paredes became so interested that he went on to earn a degree in gerontology at the University of Southern California. “I knew that our life expectancy was going to increase and hopefully improve with research,” he says. He saw a clear need for people with his passion for working with the elderly.

“I returned to Santa Barbara in 1990, and my first job was at the YMCA as aquatic director. With a push from his friend Jim Rivera, who worked at the United Way of Santa Barbara, Paredes cold-called 10 nonprofits in town looking for his next job. “I introduced myself and asked if there was anything I could do for them.”

A month later, Paredes met with Tom Roberts, the executive director of Easy Lift Transportation, which provides low-cost rides to and from home for senior citizens, enabling them to participate in social activities at nonprofit organizations such as Friendship Center. “He told me he had a job as director of operations,” Paredes says. “It was essentially my job if I wanted it. I thought, ‘Transportation?’ I don’t know if there is anything less sexy than transportation, but I’ll do it for a year.”

But providing access to seniors would become his life’s work. 

“Like anything else, I got into the world, the stories, the passengers,” he says. “I realized that it was the people I knew who would keep me here.” Paredes continued to work at Easy Lift for 10 years before he felt he was ready to become a nonprofit executive director. 

“It’s really important for me to share as much wisdom as I can, to share wisdom with younger directors. The more you learn from others, hopefully you won’t make the same mistakes as some of us did. And maybe you can learn from some of the successes as well.”

With that title, Paredes joined Court Appointed Special Advocates of Santa Barbara, which provides volunteer advocates for neglected or abused children as they journey through the county’s family court system. “CASA was a little engine that could, but was small and having financial challenges,” Paredes says. “They took a chance on a newbie.” Paredes describes the job as a game-changer. “I was introduced to another world, the earlier side of human development and the underbelly of our community – child abuse and neglect.”

Through CASA, Paredes became intimately familiar with Santa Barbara’s nonprofit world, meeting numerous community leaders and donors. “At CASA, I met another mentor, Larry ‘Mr. Santa Barbara’ Crandell. He was a true champion of our philanthropic sector,” he says. “In fact, he – along with Michael Towbes, Pierre Claeyssens, Palmer Jackson Sr., Sara Miller McCune, and Tom Parker – is my personal choice for our local nonprofit Mt. Rushmore supporters.”

“These were people who were in the financial position to not only give but to recruit other people to give and who were creative and able to share our process,” he says. “It was one of the highlights of my professional career. I got to help involve other people in the community and serve children who without our voices would be voiceless.”

In 2005, however, Easy Lift recruited Paredes back into the fold as its executive director – a title he still holds. In 2018, Paredes also joined the Santa Barbara Foundation as a trustee and became a board member of Cottage Health. For his many volunteer commitments, Paredes was awarded the 75th Man of the Year award in 2017 by the Santa Barbara Foundation. “I hope our community is aware of the great leaders we have in Ron Werft, CEO of Cottage Health, and Jackie Carrera, CEO of the Santa Barbara Foundation,” he says. “These two are truly my professional heroes – the best of the best!”

“During the pandemic, it has been fascinating to see how a nonprofit like Cottage can deliver a white glove quality of service to our community,” Paredes says. “At the Santa Barbara Foundation, we are serving many name brand nonprofits but also small-scale organizations that are really important in our community. It has been a gift to be able to see the development of the great things we are accomplishing, but there is still work to be done. That will always be the case.”

When Paredes joined the Santa Barbara Special Olympics Leadership Council as chairman this year, he felt that his life in public service had finally come full circle.

 “It’s something that has been near and dear to me as a child,” he says. And as the founder and director of the Executive Roundtable, he says he feels lucky to pass on what he’s learned to the next generation of nonprofit leaders in Santa Barbara.

“It’s really important for me to share as much wisdom as I can, to share wisdom with younger directors,” says Paredes. “The more you learn from others, hopefully you won’t make the same mistakes as some of us did. And maybe you can learn from some of the successes as well.”