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AARP Talks with Julie Wilcke Pilmer – Livable Oregon

Posted on 05/05/19

Julie Wilcke Pilmer, Ride Connection

What happens when we are not able to drive or use public transit? How do we get around to meet our everyday needs and stay connected in to our community? AARP research tell us that transportation and mobility options are fundamental to our well-being as we grow older. But too often, lack of accessible, reliable transportation options keep older adults and people with disabilities from participating in everyday activities or meeting basic needs.

We are excited to bring you this new edition of the Livable Oregon blog series with an in-depth interview with Julie Wilcke Pilmer, CEO of Ride Connection, a local non-profit that is improving lives  and leading transportation innovation.

Julie, tell us about Ride Connection and what it does?

Ride Connection is a 30+ year nonprofit organization that provides free transportation options for older adults and people with disabilities in the tri-county area. Our mission is to link accessible, responsive transportation alternatives with individual and community needs.

Ride Connection collaborates, convenes and supports social service organizations as well as provides service directly. This service is customer focused, safe, reliable and accessible. We have created programs that provide options for all ability levels including public transit training, door-to-door rides and shopping shuttles. Ride Connection relies on its wonderfully committed volunteers, public and private grants, as well as individual donations to help people get where they need to go. We also connect people with TriMet in more rural areas.

When someone new comes to us, we conduct a phone interview to find out more about their mobility needs. Once they are signed up with us, they call our service center and speak to one of our dedicated staff members to request rides, travel training or get further information about getting where they need to go.

You’ve been with Ride Connection for many years and as CEO since July of last year. What have you learned about transportation and mobility that the general public might not know and how has Ride connection’s work changed over the years?

Think about this: From the moment we are born, we strive to direct our own movement in order to fulfill our needs and learn about our environment. We begin with ordinary opportunities that allow us to investigate our environment. As we grow, our world expands until we are fully included in our community.

Providing access to this opportunity is what we do at Ride Connection. To provide access to life, to community, to the world, no matter what access looks like to you.

To some, Ride Connection is merely a way for people to get from point A to point B, but it is more than that. Ride Connection helps people live to their full potential by giving people a way to access medical care, work, healthy foods and social outlets.

We are in a very fast-paced time with regard to technology and transportation. Think of all of the new technology and transportation options that have emerged just in the last year. We also are a society that is aging and living longer with varying ability levels.

It is crucial for us all to continue to be present and accountable to create options that all people can access. This will improve our community health and improve individuals’ quality of life.

I was asked recently what makes Ride Connection great. And my answer? We are nimble, unique, collaborative, customer focused, mission driven, have creative, passionate staff and volunteers and a dedicated board of directors. These are all perfect qualities to be poised for the ever-growing need to support access in our communities.

How we do things today may be different a year from now. As different services are needed we will evolve to meet those needs, one customer at a time.

Ride Connection is an important partner in Age-Friendly Portland and Multnomah County Initiative’s vision for a livable and age-friendly community. From your work around the region, you also have a broad metro-wide perspective on transportation and mobility options, especially as they pertain to older adults and people with disabilities. In your opinion, how are we doing in providing adequate mobility options to people who live in our region? What’s going well and what are the gaps and challenges? And what is going well?

The Portland area is fortunate to have a robust transportation system with many options for people to get around. And I think we’ve come a long way in the 30 years Ride Connection has been around.

There are people in local and regional government as well as key decision-makers in transit that are putting a priority on equitable transit systems and serving older adults and people with disabilities. Our most recent project with the City of Portland is a great example. The City has created the WAV program as a way to allow greater access to on-demand taxi services. The WAV program allows a person with a disability to request a ride from traditional taxi or transportation network companies (TNC), like Uber and Lyft, for the same rate as all other rides. While that sounds like a no-brainer, before this program was set in place with a call center to help locate and dispatch accessible vehicles from local cab and TNC companies, a rider with a disability may have had to face unrealistic wait times.

While I’m heartened by efforts to include options for older adults and people with disabilities in transportation planning and funding, it’s not enough. Ride Connection cannot fill all of the ride requests we receive. We currently turn down roughly 20% of all requested rides. This is mainly due to capacity which equals funding. I believe we can do better. What does that look like?
• Including older adults and people with disabilities in meaningful ways to address the unmet needs.
• Staying focused on equal access.
• Creating innovative solutions.
• Being bold

If we all work together we can make a better tomorrow.

With technological advances, today we have we have many more options for transportation. How will technology further change the way we get around in the future with not only ride share, but autonomous vehicles and other emerging technologies?

Photo: Ride Connection

Technology plays a critical role in transportation and will continue to change the way we provide and access mobility. The trick is harnessing the power without leaving anyone behind.

Technology is a tool. There are many people in the region providing transportation services and technology will help us link it all and make it more available and seamless than ever. Successful technology will also be user-friendly. As Ride Connection moves forward to adopt advances in transportation technology, providing multiple points of entry is crucial.

Currently, Ride Connection, in coordination with local and regional partners and stakeholders have a new initiative called Mobility for All to support the framework for a one-call, one-click information system. This system would be designed to ensure that transportation services for older adults and people with disabilities are not siloed but included in advancements made to integrate multiple choices within one system. We recently received a grant from Metro to continue work on this project with the goal of providing more and better information to the people who need it most.

Volunteers play an important role in your organization. Can you describe the roles volunteers play and how people can get involved?

Volunteers enrich us, bring us together as a community and help non-profits, like Ride Connection, provide the critical services that carry out their mission. For more than 30 years, volunteers have been an integral part of Ride Connection supporting independent mobility of older adults and people with disabilities in the Portland metro area. The service provided by each and every volunteer is invaluable and unmatched!

Volunteers help with fundraising, administrative tasks, committee work and provide rides to those we serve. Volunteers contributed 44,000 hours last fiscal year, most of which was through driving. Our volunteer driver roles are flexible and give the volunteers the ability to set their own schedules. Some volunteers choose to drive five days a week and some spend just a day, a morning or an afternoon each month, to get people where they need to go and helping them to stay connected to their community. In addition to providing a much-needed service, we can count on them to bring passion and heart to the job, offering a level of warmth and friendliness that is so appreciated by our customers.

The benefits to volunteering with Ride Connection are endless; giving back, sense of community and meeting new people are just a few of the perks. Ride Connection also provides training and mileage reimbursement to our volunteer drivers.

As a volunteer for Ride Connection you are a life line and a friend. For more information visit www.rideconnection.org/get-involved or reach out to us directly at volunteer@rideconnection.org or 503-528-1738.

Bonus question: If you had not chosen in a transportation/human service nonprofit, what would have been your alternative profession?

I consider myself a lifelong learner so this is a challenging question to answer and I must take a step back. I happened on this profession by chance, or luck, as a volunteer driver back in 1991. My only focus at that time was to be the best Mom I could be to two amazing sons. Community service was important to me and I wanted to instill this in my children, as my Mom had for me.
As our lives grow and change, our interests and desires do too. I still believe community service is important and believe no matter what other profession I would choose, it would have to be mission driven. My current interests include; fused glass, beekeeping, addressing food disparities from a social justice perspective and looking at innovative practices to solve house-less-ness. That said, at this moment, I can’t think of a better profession than the one I am in.

This story is provided by AARP Oregon. Visit the AARP Oregon page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.

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