Elisa Pardo learned how a social services organization can change a life when she became a teenage parent. The Community Action Commission of Santa Barbara County (CACSB) helped her in a time of need. Now, 15 years later, she’s still with the organization – this time as program manager of 2-1-1 Santa Barbara County, the Health and Human Service line acquired by the CACSB in 2014.
In 2003, Elisa participated in Las Comadres, a mentoring program that empowers teenage girls. The program not only guided her through the challenges of teen parenting but also introduced her to the field of human services.
“The services CACSB provides to our community not only supported me and my family but also inspired me to pursue higher education and engage in the health and human service field, allowing me to now pay it forward,” said Elisa. At 21, she became a full-time case manager.
She didn’t hesitate when the opportunity came to serve as program manager of 2-1-1 Santa Barbara County, a free and confidential service line that connects people to vital health and human service information 24 hours a day, seven days a week, (and in 150 languages)!
The personalized call center collaborates with over 300 local agencies to provide health and human resources, spanning an array of topics including legal aid, mental wellness, access to food and clothing, job assistance, and more.
Countywide, the agency typically fields approximately 500 calls per month. But that drastically changed in December 2017, when the Thomas Fire and subsequent debris flows ravaged the community. The call center was inundated with more than 12,000 inquiries in just two months.
Elisa faced the most daunting challenge of her professional life. She was the lead employee responsible for outreach, collaboration, reporting, connecting and ensuring that the 2-1-1 calls operate smoothly.
Her most indelible memory was the televised 4 pm news conferences announcing the names of the deceased – she feared every time they could be the very same names she recorded as missing from her call centers.
Her voice broke as she recounts the unimaginable number of texts and calls from all hours of the day and night. Though she wasn’t out battling the blaze, she said she felt the weight of serving on the front lines as she heard firsthand what residents needed and conveyed that information to the local office of emergency management.
“We were working around the clock to connect people with resources and get them aid – we filled the gap when the emergency response systems were overloaded and we fielded very difficult calls,” explained Elisa.
“Hearing all of our community’s needs was overwhelming; people were terrified, unsure if they needed to evacuate, uncertain where to go.”
“Hearing all of our community’s needs was overwhelming; people were terrified, unsure if they needed to evacuate, uncertain where to go, unable to read the maps, scared to drink the water, and painfully sharing the names of missing family members,” recalled Elisa.
It’s a memory she still finds hard to shake. Her pain and pride are evident in her tears. Elisa admits that she is just now – almost a year after the disaster – starting to process everything that happened.
“It was a really difficult time but also an opportunity that I’m grateful to have been part of. I’m proud of how CACSB stepped up and supported the vital needs of our community, even knowing the financial limitations. I’m grateful for those who were with me at every minute through this tragic event, and thankful to have been trusted by our local office with that responsibility. Together, we succeeded.”
Luckily, she says, she has family to support her – a husband, two daughters and a large extended family. She has also found strength through her cohort class and mentors at Leading From Within. She recently completed the Emerging Leaders Program and was active in the program during the disasters.
“Emerging Leaders provided me with a safe space and different perspectives of how the tragedy was impacting our community, and my class validated my needs and reassured me that I could handle the thousands of urgent calls,” she said. But perhaps Elisa’s resilience comes mostly from within. She recalls those early days at CACSB as a building block for what was to come.