It’s an age-old question familiar to Jewish organizations: How can they get more people to attend their programs? J Rides may very well be the answer, by focusing on increasing participation among seniors.
Under the J Rides program, a new partnership the Bender Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Greater Washington and the Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington (JCA), anyone who wants to attend a JCC program can call to request a free ride. Not only will a volunteer driver pick up and take them right to the JCC program of their choice, they might make a new friend who most likely will attend that program also.
“The time that you are spending in the car, you really are developing a friendship. You learn what their interests are. You make very nice connections,” said Elisabeth Schouten, a volunteer driver. “I get a lot out of it, and it makes me feel good,” she said.
Schouten, 79, lives in Potomac, Maryland, where she also drives for the Potomac Community Village. Driving others “has saved my life, literally, because I would have shriveled up. This makes my life richer,” Schouten said. And, she said with a huge smile, “I get a lot of hugs.”
While the program is just starting and won’t be fully operational until right after the High Holidays, seven people have already signed up for rides.
“There is a need,” said Stacy Olivera, who runs J Rides.
For years, the JCC has tried to accommodate its non-driving participants by ordering taxis for them. Two older men, one who is 103 years old and the other in his late 90s, live on the same street and are mobile and independent. When the JCC orders a taxi for them, the company sends two — one for each man. While they do ultimately get there, riding together could help them develop a friendship, Olivera pointed out.
“They could easily come together. They would love to spend the time together.”
“Attending programs with another person also helps motivate people to come,” said Sue Kleit, JCC marketing coordinator.
Olivera is well aware that most people wouldn’t think to phone for a ride. But once they learn of the J Ride program, she hopes that will change.
And, as Schouten pointed out, “It doesn’t cost extra for gas if you are going with one person in the car or two.”
Olivera is currently seeking volunteer drivers. They do not need to commit to a set number of hours; usually, they will drive to and from programs they already plan to attend. Volunteer drivers can choose their own schedules, routes, and passengers.
The Bender JCC has set up a J Rides computer database with the names of anyone who requests a ride as well as those who are willing to drive. The drivers can access the information, see who needs a ride, and sign up.
All volunteer drivers get fingerprinted, receive a background check, and must show proof of insurance. They also must attend a special training from the staff of JCA’s VillageRides program in Rockville, Maryland.
The VillageRides program supports neighborhood villages with volunteer training programs in both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. A village is a local, volunteer-led, grassroots organization that aims to support community members who choose to age in place in their own homes.
During Fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, 2018, VillageRides provided 5,275 rides to residents in 13 villages, according to Sara Fought, VillageRides coordinator.
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.