Volunteers driven to help others

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Anne Ball

Gina Eichman and her 5-year-old son pick up Raymond DeGrafft in Ellicott City as a part of the Neighbor Ride program, in which volunteers drive older adults to doctor appointments, grocery stores, social events and other destinations. Riders pay a modest fee for the service.
Photo by Frank Klein

Several years ago, Barbara Greenfeld’s aging mother needed someone to drive her to doctor appointments while Greenfeld worked full time in enrollment services at Howard Community College.

Greenfeld discovered Neighbor Ride, a Columbia-based nonprofit that matches volunteer drivers with Howard County residents 60 and older who need transportation.

At first, her mother was a bit reluctant to let a stranger drive her somewhere. “So I suggested she keep a journal of her travels,” Greenfeld recalled.

“She recorded names and types of vehicles as well, and for the first time in her life rode in a pickup truck and a limousine. One time the volunteer who came to the door turned out to be her dentist!”

The Neighbor Ride program, whose slogan is “Volunteers Drive/Seniors Thrive,” is in its ninth year of connecting seniors who need wheels with volunteers who enjoy driving them to and from medical appointments, shopping, religious services and other special or routine trips.

Last year, Neighbor Ride provided nearly 15,000 trips. Most are taken within the county, but trips extending up to 35 miles one-way can be booked, enabling residents to go to Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and surrounding counties.

Those booking rides pay a modest amount for each trip, ranging from $5 for round trips under two miles each way, to $35 for round trips up to 35 miles each way. Passengers are also expected to pay for any tolls or parking fees on the day of the ride.

Those with limited incomes may be eligible for subsidized rides. The organization’s funding comes from a variety of state, local, foundation, corporate and individual contributions.

Giving (and getting) back

When Greenfeld, 63, and her husband retired a few years ago, they decided to sign on as volunteer drivers themselves. Greenfeld also serves on the organization’s board of directors.

She and her husband have been pleasantly surprised at their passengers’ variety of backgrounds and interests.

“We’re finding some fascinating passengers,” Greenfeld said, “like one elderly woman who was finishing up an accelerated course at Howard Community College.

“Then there are some folks who have never driven a car, whether they’ve been in an urban situation where one was not needed, or if it is a cultural thing from another nation where women just don’t drive.”

And from the passengers, too, there’s strong enthusiasm for the interesting drivers they get to meet.

Marilyn Barnes, 80, used to come along with her late husband when Neighbor Ride drove him to doctor’s appointments. Though he is gone now, she continues to call on Neighbor Ride for rides to and from her doctor’s appointments several times a week.

Although some callers ask for the same driver each trip, Barnes enjoys the spontaneity of a different driver each time.

“I really appreciate talking with the wonderfully interesting drivers that turn up,” she said. “We have some great conversations!”

A “feel good” job

Neighbor Ride grew out of a Howard County Office on Aging study in 2001, projecting that the county’s senior population would double by the year 2020. Seniors surveyed for the study listed healthcare and a lack of transportation options as their top two concerns.

A work group explored options for two years. Then a model utilizing the county’s existing programs and volunteer resources was launched as Neighbor Ride in the summer of 2004.

 “It’s a wonderful program for volunteers — you feel good right off the bat,” said Colleen Dumais Konstanzer, the group’s community outreach director. Konstanzer served as the organization’s first executive director until growing family demands intervened. Konstanzer also volunteers as a driver.

Konstanzer’s assessment gets an endorsement from longtime volunteer Thomas Meachum, an attorney in downtown Columbia at the law firm of Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scherr.

“I read about Neighbor Ride in the paper and thought it sounded like a perfect fit for me,” Meachum said. “I wanted to do some volunteering, and this fit in perfectly with my availability.

“I work mostly in the Columbia area,” Meachum continued, “driving folks to doctors’ appointments or shopping at the mall, then coming back to my office to work for a couple hours till it’s time to pick them up for the trip back home.

“I’m always interested in meeting people one on one, and the driving makes it so easy to do that. What wonderful stories my passengers tell me about what they’ve done in their lives! And it’s helped me to appreciate the rich diversity in the makeup of Howard County, too.”

Coordinating rides

Those who volunteer to drive for Neighbor Ride must be at least 21 years old, submit to a driving record and criminal background check, and be interested in seniors.

Although drivers are offered up to 40 percent reimbursement on the gas they use, Neighbor Ride Director Brad Cross notes that few take it, preferring to consider fuel as part of their contribution. Neighbor Ride covers all drivers with an umbrella liability insurance policy.

The office phones are manned by volunteers who take calls from seniors requesting transportation for a specific date and time. Such requests must be made at least three business days in advance of the need.

Requests are then entered into a master computer program used to match volunteers and their availability with those needing rides. There is no guarantee that each ride request can be filled.

But once a driver accepts an assignment, he or she informs the office and takes responsibility for calling their passenger(s) the day before as a reminder of the pickup time and destination.

Cross estimates that close to 99 percent of all ride requests are filled, and those that aren’t are usually “Friday evening rush hour on the Beltway,” when no volunteer drivers are available.

Cross, 67, formerly at Hewlett-Packard, now uses his business skills to oversee the operations of the organization’s $250,000 annual budget, which covers staffing and organizational expenditures.

Susan Appletree, a retired elementary school teacher who has worked with Neighbor Ride as a driver and volunteer ride coordinator for the past seven years, has story after story to tell about the passengers, their requests and their gratitude.

Many of the Neighbor Ride volunteers are retirees, she noted. She hears from them especially the “feel good” stories of passengers they’ve driven to weekly lunch gatherings with friends, or to senior centers just to meet with people and chat for an hour or two.

Another favorite story is that of a volunteer driver who originally contacted Neighbor Ride as a passenger following surgery that left him unable to drive to his rehabilitation appointments. Now fully recovered, he is determined to “pay it forward” as a volunteer driving others in need of transportation to remain active and independent.

And then there was one elderly gent who went straight to the heart of it when he said good-bye to his driver one day.

“Thank you, angel,” he said.

For additional information on Neighbor Ride, or to volunteer or make a contribution, visit www.neighborride.org or call (410) 884-RIDE (7433).