It’s Friday afternoon as Betty Douglass pulls into the driveway at the home of Maya Huber to give her a ride to an ophthalmologist. It’s a scene played out daily across Northern Virginia: Volunteers giving free rides to older residents who have either given up or restricted their driving.
Douglass, 78, who provides rides once—sometimes twice—a week, is chairman of the Board of The Shepherd’s Center of McLean-Arlington-Falls Church, an all-volunteer organization that focuses primarily on providing transportation to older people in those three jurisdictions. The Center is a partner in Northern Virginia Rides (NVRides) an umbrella network for 14 community-based organizations that give free rides to older residents regardless of income.
NVRides was created as part of a 2012 Fairfax County community action plan in response to a survey of people 55-plus that found an alarming need for housing and transportation among older county residents. Originally, it had four partner organizations but has been adding groups over time.
NVRides offers administrative support to the various organizations, particularly through an online scheduling system that is shared with each organization. The organizations, in turn, send their volunteers a spreadsheet listing upcoming requested rides.
How often a volunteer provides a ride is up to each volunteer. At The Sheperd’s Center of McLean-Arlington-Falls Church, one volunteer provides a ride almost every day, others about once a week, once a month or even only once a year. All of the volunteers in all of the NVRides organizations are vetted for criminal backgrounds and drivers’ records. None are paid or reimbursed for their travel expenses.
Maya Huber of McLean, who settles comfortably in the front seat of Douglass’ car, is typical of an NVRides client. She’ll turn 90 at the end of December and has macular degeneration in both eyes. She has largely given up driving, although she will make short trips in the daytime to places she is very familiar with. Her three grown children live out of the area and her husband, who uses a wheelchair, lives in an assisted living center in McLean.
Huber, who goes to the clinic in Tyson’s Corner about once a month, estimates it would cost more than $20 each way if she had to hire a service to transport her.
“It’s very helpful,” she said, recalling that one time she asked the Shepherd’s Center for a ride to an appointment in Alexandria but was unable to get it because of a scheduling conflict. A commercial ride service charged her $30 one-way, but the Shepherd’s Center was able to pick her up for the return trip.
Douglass said she spent most of her working life as an administrator in the field of gerontology, including 18 years as director of the Association for Gerontology In Higher Education. After retiring in 2011, she said she wanted to take a more active role in providing direct service to older people.
Like Douglass, most of the Shepherd’s Center volunteers are retired women. While many of the clients, like Huber, live in well-to-do community, many are also low income and would have a difficult time getting to necessary appointments if they had to hire transportation, Douglass said.
There are no income restrictions for clients, but there are a few limits on who can get rides. Clients must be physically mobile, the drivers cannot haul wheelchairs in and out of vehicles. They must be able to communicate in English and must be able to remember that they have an appointment and where the appointment is located.
Most requests for a ride must be made at least a week in advance in order to allow the rides to be placed into the system. “We’re not a taxi service,” Douglass said. But occasionally rides may be given on short-term notice in an emergency if a driver is available.
Douglass finds that drivers sometimes act as advocates for their riders. She recalled an incident when a driver dropped a particularly low-income rider at an optician’s office. When she returned an hour later, the woman still had not been served and had been too timid to ask for help. The driver intervened and got the attention of a clerk who brought out a small box of glasses frames that were clearly inappropriate for the woman. The driver insisted that the woman receive proper care, which she finally did.
Drivers also sometimes can act as a referral service. If a driver notices that a client is in need of help that the Shepherd’s Center doesn’t provide, a report is filed with the Shepherd’s Center’s ride coordinator who in turn contacts an appropriate agency that might provide the necessary service.
NVRides operates as the coordinating umbrella for the organizations but each organization operates on its own to recruit and screen drivers and set their own standards. Together, the organizations provide rides across Northern Virginia including Arlington, Fairfax. Loudoun and Prince William counties and the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church, said Anna Stolley Persky, media and communications director for NVRides.
Each organization determines what types of rides they will offer. Some are restricted to medical appointments. Others also include grocery shopping or other activities.
“Each organization is different. We don’t come in like Big Brother and say ‘This is how you must run your program,” said Persky.
Last year about 450 drivers provided roughly 12,000 rides to about 600 clients in all the NVRides organizations. As of early December 2019, The Shepherd’s Center of McLean-Arlington-Falls Church, had provided 2,365 rides by 81 drivers serving 120 clients and clocked more than 18,000 miles, not counting the distances between the drivers’ and the clients’ houses.
In addition to providing the software used by all the organization to schedule and coordinate rides, NVRides pays for the background checks on drivers and helps recruit drivers. Both Persky and Douglass emphasized that there is always need for more volunteer drivers. Potential drivers can volunteer either directly with local organizations or through NVRides, which then passes the person’s contact information to a local organization. Volunteers can contact NVRides at 703-537-3070 or 703-537-3071 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“People who are active want to be engaged and want to give back and want to pay it forward because they can see that they might not be able to drive some time in the future,” said Rachel Simon, marketing and outreach coordinator for NVRides. She noted that some drivers and riders form a social bond, particularly if a client has a regularly scheduled ride with a specific driver. It’s another way of combating isolation among older residents, many of whom would otherwise be virtually shut in because of lack of transportation.
NVRides is supported with a grant from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Other organizations, including AARP Virginia, also provide support.
In addition to the Northern Virginia organizations, NVRides also coordinates with the Jewish Council of Agencies of Montgomery County, Md.
This story is provided by AARP Virginia. Visit the AARP Virginia page for more news, events, and programs affecting retirement, health care, and more.
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