Irving and Toby are a couple, both in their 90s, happily living in their own home in Olney, Maryland. They credit their ability to stay active and social without abandoning the home and community they love to Olney Home for Life (OHFL), an all-volunteer service that provides seniors with free transportation.
“I am 93 and Toby is 90, and we couldn’t do without this service at our age,” Irving said. The drivers have been “so friendly and helpful and have treated us as family,” he added.
Another senior, Joan, has been receiving free rides from OHFL to for more than two years. “I have been accompanied to appointments, both medical and personal, by many nice people on their staff,” she said. “On one shopping trip, I felt like I had my own personal ‘Lost and Found Department’ with me. I kept leaving my walker in ‘parts unknown,’ and Madeline, the very patient volunteer who was with me, always seemed to know where to find it and retrieve it.”
OHFL is one of 13 “villages” supported by the Jewish Council for the Aging (JCA) of Greater Washington’s VillageRides program. Volunteer-led, grassroots organizations that support community members who want to “age in place,” villages throughout Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties — and soon Northern Virginia as well— all provide free rides for seniors and adults with disabilities who do not drive. JCA’s VillageRides program, in turn, provides operational support, access to ride scheduling software and marketing support to its participating villages.
“These grassroots services allow seniors who no longer drive to remain in their homes yet retain their independence by receiving rides to medical appointments, shopping, social events, and more,” said Sara Fought, JCA’s VillageRides coordinator. And in exchange for “the gift of a lift” (VillageRides’ slogan), volunteers receive not only the knowledge they are helping others but also the opportunity to meet neighbors and build relationships in their community, Fought said.
Now, thanks to a newly-awarded Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG) grant of $515,540, JCA expects to facilitate an additional 1,000 free rides during the next two years with the establishment of a Network for Volunteer Driving of Greater Washington.
The Network will build upon JCA’s success in designing and running the Connect-A-Ride Transportation Resource Center, the VillageRides program, and other local mobility management programs, several of which were also supported by COG to enhance transportation for seniors and adults with disabilities.
The Network will train at least 435 new volunteer drivers. All told, JCA estimates that new and continuing volunteer drivers will deliver 33,440 rides during the course of the grant while serving 40 local community organizations that provide volunteer driving programs. Additionally, the Network will also provide organizations that join access to a computerized ride-scheduling system, purchased at high volume and low cost; give them practical help in developing new volunteer driver programs and learning best practices in driver training and recruitment; provide technical assistance for software, general troubleshooting, and administrative training, and much more.
“The new Network will do things that are close to my heart and close to the Jewish Council for the Aging’s heart,” said JCA CEO David Gamse. “It will support volunteerism. It will build upon JCA’s expertise in transportation services and in working with neighborhood villages and other grassroots organizations. It will utilize technology to help community groups work smarter. It will help older adults and disabled adults of all faiths and from all walks of life get where they need and want to go. And it will demonstrate to everyone that older adults and disabled adults matter, that they could and should be a vibrant part of the communities they cherish.”
The National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board (TPB) at COG approved the award and Montgomery County Department of Transportation will support the program.
A separate COG award of $165,619 will enable JCA to procure two replacement buses to continue serving vulnerable seniors who have cognitive disabilities, physical disabilities, or both, and who have no other safe, reliable, and affordable means of transport to the JCA Misler Adult Day Center and the JCA Kensington Club in Rockville, Maryland. Both centers provide safe, friendly, creative environments where older adults enjoy recreation, socialization, and group meals while receiving personalized, compassionate care.
“ElderBus service and an information and referral program called the Senior HelpLine were the very first two programs that JCA created at its founding in 1973,” said Gamse. “They are just as important now as they were nearly 45 years ago. We sincerely thank our donors and community partners for supporting us and supporting seniors’ independence year after year after year.”
By Suzanne Pollak
Suzanne Pollak is the senior writer/editor at Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington. She was a reporter at The Courier Post in New Jersey and The Washington Jewish Week, and she now writes for The Montgomery Sentinel.