Under its new executive director, a Berkeley nonprofit plans to expand its services beyond the city limits, but to succeed, it must overcome the staffing obstacles and revenue challenges that imperil the organization.

Founded in 1995, Easy Does It Emergency Services provides “charitable and educational assistance to individuals with disabilities, including but not limited to establishing and maintaining a comprehensive system of emergency and support services aimed primarily at low-income disabled residents of Berkeley,” according to its articles of incorporation.

Examples of Easy Does It support services include transportation, in-home attendant care, equipment repair for wheelchairs and other mobility devices, and resources to aid independent living.

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“We exist to be backup support for people with disabilities when their usual support system is not available to them,” said EDI executive director Michele Blackwell. “We are a diverse and highly dedicated team, skilled at filling in when someone’s best laid plans unexpectedly change.”

Thirty EDI employees serve approximately 350 clients per year. Clients must be Berkeley residents, must register for the services and must have a severe disability. “Typically, they use a wheelchair,” Blackwell said.

Attendants are available 24/7, every day of the year, to assist with cooking, grocery shopping, bathing and other housekeeping functions. Rides to medical appointments can be provided, and the nonprofit also repairs wheelchairs.

Easy Does It also assists Berkeley residents looking to hire a caregiver by helping with placement of advertisements, assisting with candidate interviews, applying for subsidized accessible transportation services and finding disaster preparedness information. “It’s individualized to each person’s situation,” Blackwell said.

In 1998, Berkeley voters approved Measure E, authorizing a property tax to finance services for “severely physically disabled persons.” Measure E remains EDI’s principal source of revenue, providing virtually all funding for the attendants, equipment repair and emergency transportation programs. Revenue also includes Measure B funds from Alameda County to cover emergency transportation and wheelchair repair for residents whose wheelchair breaks down when are away from their home.

Easy Does It staff members, from left, Yvonne Jackson, Ayanna Keaton, Richard Woolbert and Michele Blackwell, pose outside the nonprofit’s Berkeley headquarters. (Photo courtesy Easy Does It)

Blackwell, executive director since early 2020, said she is working to build a “bigger, better, stronger EDI,” and ideally, she would like to serve clients in cities near Berkeley, like Emeryville, Oakland and Alameda, as well as in west Contra Costa County.

“Funding is the key to this effort,” Blackwell said.

EDI, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, reported $1.5 million in revenue in 2019, almost entirely from service fees and government contracts. The nonprofit reported only 4.1% of its revenue from donations and contributions, below the national average of nearly 20%, according to the National Council of Nonprofits.

“We know our donor figure is low,” Blackwell said.  “Our strategic plan includes a stronger emphasis on grant writing, building relationships with philanthropic organizations and increasing our private donor base.”

To expand a service area requires not only additional funding but also hiring more people, and Blackwell faces stiff competition as she looks to upgrade staffing. As of mid-November, Indeed, a job search website, listed more than 41,000 jobs available in Alameda County, some offering up to $1,500 as a signing bonus.

Easy Does It transportation director Eduardo Guiza drives a paratransit van to assist the nonprofit’s disabled clients in Berkeley. (Photo courtesy Easy Does It)

“Our work is highly personal,” Blackwell said. “Finding people to do this work is our biggest challenge. People in the field are typically underpaid and underappreciated.”

What EDI does offer its employees is the staying power of an organization that has been around for 26 years. “As we look to build into the 21st century, people who we hire will have the opportunity to help set a new course for our organization,” Blackwell said.

With her 30 years of experience working with organizations that help people live healthy, independent lives, Blackwell is poised to deliver the updated and reinvigorated EDI that she envisions.

“EDI is a vitally important safety net in the city of Berkeley that makes a huge difference in people’s lives,” Blackwell said. “We know that people with disabilities outside of Berkeley could use a back-up safety net for their attendant, transportation and repair needs, too.”

Donors may contribute to EDI at https://easydoesitservices.org/donations/.