This week I found myself mentioned in The Sentinel, not because of this column or the profiles I write, but because an organization with which I was associated — actually as its president and one of its founders — gave up the ghost and donated its money to Home Healthcare, Hospice and Community Services (HCS).
We called ourselves Volunteers Enabling Transportation (VET), and many of us were former drivers for the local Red Cross chapter’s medical transportation service which had closed down.
Gary Welch, the former dispatcher for the Red Cross, and Bob Perry, a longtime Red Cross volunteer, spearheaded the effort to get us going.
We all met at Panera’s one morning five years ago, pulled money from our wallets or wrote checks, and anted it up on the table, just like in a poker game. That was how it came to be. A local lawyer volunteered his time to do the paperwork, and a local auto dealer gave us a used car.
We grew to a fleet of three cars that we owned and a few drivers used their own autos. We raised money, secured some government funds for a couple of years before we went totally privately funded and spread the word. Generous donors came forward, sometimes from kind people who we’d not even solicited but who had heard about us. More drivers were recruited. Wilder’s Garage allowed us to park our fleet there, free of charge.
Some of our passengers also gave us small donations, but they were very big considering the modest incomes they had.
We did this all with incurring no administrative expenses whatsoever — we all worked free, we drivers were not paid mileage nor would we ever ask for it. We were all a band of brothers and sisters; we enjoyed it and knew it provided a free service for those in most need of it.
Welch volunteered full time as dispatcher and his phone sometimes rang off the hook. Occasionally, every car we had was traveling the highways on the same day, taking people to hospitals in Lebanon, Manchester, Peterborough, White River Junction, Keene, Brattleboro and Boston – and returning them to their homes following their appointments or procedures. By our estimates we provided more than 7,000 rides to more than a thousand people.
But it was not fated to last forever. All-volunteer non-profits with no paid administrators don’t often live more than two years. We lasted 4½ years, but a combination of forces led by the aging out of both board members and drivers made the future look unsure. I used to say facetiously from time to time that we were just a bunch of old people driving old people, and I guess that’s what eventually we became.
Then COVID hit and kneecapped us. We closed for four months, then re-opened in July of last year. We persevered as long as we could and then decided to disband and donate our money to HCS, which also provides medical transportation for those in need. We felt that would be a good fit for our resources.
During the time we were together, we’d gather monthly, conduct business and share the wonderful stories of the people we transported.
What invariably came up among us were the following observations:
There is an insatiable need for people in our region to secure transportation to medical facilities.
Many people, mostly elderly, live alone, virtually stranded in their homes.
Many of these people are seriously ill.
Many people are estranged from family members.
Many people are extremely poor.
Many people live in unsanitary and unsafe housing.
Hospitals do nothing to provide transportation for patients.
Another thing that we all noticed was that in addition to providing free rides, our clients were equally appreciative of the company we provided, the conversations that took place on sometimes long rides. For some of them, we were the only people — besides doctors and the Meals-on-Wheels drivers — who they’d converse with that week.
Drivers got to know clients very well mainly because you’d often drive the same people repeatedly. You got to know the sometimes sad — and happy — details of their lives, some of a very confidential nature. You also learned the nature of their illnesses, as they’d often talk about that. I learned so much from them, as did all the drivers.
One particular insight I gleaned from these people was how resilient they were. Beset by a matrix of complex problems and illnesses that would force me to my knees, I often observed that they were neither happier nor sadder than most of the fortunate, wealthy people I know.
Naturally, because of the severity of their chronic illnesses, we’d lose clients; they’d pass on. You’d read the obituary, knowing so much more about that person than was simply written in the newspaper. Maybe I’ll have conversations with them up ahead.
If there would be one message in this column, it’s this: If you know anyone who is elderly, alone and sick, call them up and ask them if they need a ride to the doctor, even if it’s up in Lebanon.
John McGauley, an author and radio talk-show host, writes from Keene. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org