Senior Ride Program Looking for More Volunteer Drivers as Demand Soars

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(Cathy Goshorn, Photographer)
Seniors Around Town volunteer (R) Pam Schroeder, with rider Gerry Bonner, is one of the much-needed drivers for the popular ride service.

    Seniors Around Town, the Orinda group that offers free rides to the elderly, has seen such an explosion in demand that for the first time in 14 years it is limiting its services.
    Starting in May, the nonprofit started restricting rides to medical appointments only, as requests could not keep up with the available drivers, according to Kate Wiley, director of Seniors Around Town. That month, the group received about 150 requests for rides when it typically provides about 100 to 120.
    In 2017 the organization provided 892 rides. In 2018, it gave 1,336 rides. “In 2019, it will be even more than last year,” says Wiley.
    The spike, Wiley says, is the result of seniors seeking more rides for services beyond medical appointments, such as trips for shopping, haircuts or errands. Whereas in the past seniors usually requested one ride a month, they now are requesting two or three. 
    Wiley says the decision is not a long-term policy change. “We are triaging based on need, just going month by month,” she says.
    Seniors Around Town has 114 registered riders and 65 drivers. Because the amount of rides it provides is based solely on how many drivers are available, the organization is making a push to recruit more volunteers through social media and word of mouth, says Cathy Goshorn, program coordinator.
    According to Goshorn, the organization had to start telling clients in May that non-medical rides could not be accommodated. 
    “It’s really hard. I don’t like to do that. They have to take a taxi, which is expensive. Some are competent doing Uber and Lyft, but they know our drivers,” Goshorn says. “They trust us.”
    Trust has been the hallmark of the program from day one, says Wiley, who started the program 14 years ago with a $30,000 grant the city received. Now, the program runs on a $40,000 annual budget that is heavily subsidized by The Orinda Association. It has five part-time employees.
    And that’s where the trust part comes in. The employees work closely with each client to assess and accommodate needs. They take into consideration the client’s mobility, expectations, language skills, where they need to go and how often. This information is used to match clients with drivers. 
    Drivers receive the same personalized treatment. The time commitment is up to each driver; rides can be local or as far as Berkeley and Walnut Creek. They can last 20 minutes or several hours. 
    “If they don’t want to, they don’t have to,” says Goshorn. “There is no pressure.”
    About 40 percent of the volunteers have been driving for more than five years, including Dianne Gilbert. She signed up in 2011 and recently also became a rider when eye appointments prevented her from getting behind the wheel.  
    Gilbert, who has lived in Orinda since the ‘70s and is retired, says she takes every opportunity she can to give rides. “Where ever they need me to go, I go,” she says. “These people can’t drive anymore so they’ve lost that freedom and it’s something I’ve cherished all my life. They are so thankful they can get a ride.” 
    Only Orinda residents are eligible for the program – both as riders and as drivers. So while the program could get more volunteers by going outside of Orinda, Wiley says that is not an option. 
    “I want to keep it community-based. That’s where the joy comes from. Every day we hear stories about drivers and riders. They have a connection. They know someone. There is real comfort on the seniors’ part knowing it’s someone in their community giving them a ride,” Wiley says. “And the drivers, they haven’t already driven 15 or 20 minutes to pick you up. They haven’t gotten lost trying to find you. This model works because it’s all in the same community.”
    To learn more about the program or to volunteers, call 925-402-4506 or visit the Orinda Association website, www.orindaassociation.org.

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