ST. ALBANS — Need a ride? Patricia Woodward has you covered.
She can pick you up at 4:30 a.m. if need be, can take you to your doctor’s appointment, your addiction treatment center, the dentist’s office, or just to the grocery store. All the while, she’ll be there to talk, to listen and keep you company.
Woodward, a 65-year-old St. Albans resident, is one of the 21 volunteer drivers helping the Green Mountain Transit Agency (GMTA) in the Franklin County area. Woodward transports GMTA clients in her 2010 Ford Fusion five days a week, working with many of area’s residents who are older, on Medicare, have disabilities, are veterans, or are in need of daily medical or addiction treatment.
According to GMTA’s community relation’s program manager, Tawnya Kristen, volunteer drivers are vital to many people in Franklin County who may not otherwise have access to transportation.
“You’re looking at thousands of trips per year that are being provided,” she said. Not only do drivers get people from point A to point B, added Kristen, they also provide what may be the only human interaction a client will have during the week.
“There are so many people who are alone and this is their only outing,” she said. “This service is really the foundation of the continued health and vitality of our communities.”
Because of Franklin County’s rural nature, running everyday errands or getting to healthcare appointments becomes more of a task. While GMTA’s local, state and federally funded transportation system has several public shuttles and commuter buses that go between Richford and St. Albans, St. Albans and Burlington, St. Albans and Georgia, they don’t always run at convenient times.
“[This] leaves a large demographic of people that are underserved,” said Kristen. She added that with the baby boomer generation growing older, more and more clients call each day for a ride, and GMTA is doing what it can to allow people their independence.
In addition, Kristen said the number of people entering opiate addiction treatment has shot up. “A lot of the barriers tend to be around transportation,” she added.
That’s where GMTA’s volunteer driver service comes in. Begun in 2009, the service can provide up to 100 rides a day for people in the community. “The days fluctuate,” said Kristen, though she added that the record for rides in one day is 106.
As for the number of people GMTA gives rides to for opiate addiction treatment, Kristen said that it’s up to 25 people. “Two more and we’ll need a bus,” she added.
Patty Chadwick, the GMTA office and volunteer driver manager, has quite a task set before her each day. She is in charge of organizing rides for those who call GMTA’s office, and on some days, she said, it’s like triage.
“It’s so overwhelming, the need,” Chadwick said. “We have so many medical trips we have to prioritize.” She added that the service tries to be accommodating to clients, but can’t always do so – GMTA is currently short on volunteer drivers.
“I might only have eight volunteers one day and that’s a problem,” Chadwick said.
The service can rely a little bit on third party driving services, such as Alburgh Taxi, though it’s not nearly enough to cover the area’s need. Kristen said the service would like to have about 50 people volunteering their time and cars, even if it was just for one or two hours a week.
“Anything they can give us,” added Chadwick. “If they only want to do one day per week between 10 and two, we’ll take it.”
Drivers have to go through a background check, have a good driving record, be 18 years or older and must have private car insurance, but with those things, anyone can do it. Drivers are also reimbursed 56 cents for every mile they drive.
“Some people use this as a supplemental income if they’re retired,” Kristen added. She also said this is an option for younger people who are currently unemployed.
Woodward is one of those retirees who decided to help out GMTA a little over a year ago.
“I have a nursing background, and I didn’t want to get back into the hospital setting, she said. “This is kind of filling that nurturing need in me.”
Woodward will drive between 100 and 300 miles a day with GMTA volunteer driver service clients, sometimes spending 12 hours a day in the car. This is partly because a lot of her trips take her to the farther reaches of the county – to Enosburgh or Richford – though she’s also brought people to the White River Junction VA hospital, to Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital in New Hampshire, and even to Brigham’s and Women’s hospital in Boston.
When asked why she does this, Woodward said, “You just try to put yourself in their situation.”
She added, “I had no idea there was such a need in Franklin County. It’s never a given so you have to be flexible and available.”
Woodward said she has interacted with plenty of people over the last year. “You meet some wonderful people, and you meet some (other types of) people,” Woodward added, smiling. “It’s very rewarding.”
She continued, “It’s kind of being like a bartender. You listen to their problems and their story.”
“It’s your community,” Woodward said.
The bigger picture
While GMTA’s main mission is transportation, Kristen said the volunteer driver service has broader goals in mind. Getting people to healthcare appointments and treatment, allowing them to run errands, and perhaps most simply and most importantly, providing human interaction, are all part of supporting a healthy and close community.
“When you provide a ride, you provide a connection, a human connection,” said Kristen.
She added of the clients, “They’re very grateful.”