Community Transportation - Your Magazine Your Story

Community Transportation - Your Magazine Your Story

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Neighbors Helping Neighbors

At 6:45 on an early October morning, the sun is starting to warm the day. But right now it’s still glove and scarf weather. Becky St. Hilaire has started the engine and is letting her vehicle warm up before passengers board. She’ll pick up her regulars this morning, all Grand Isle County residents she’s come to know driving this narrow stretch of US 2.

The Champlain Islands-Vermont’s archipelago on Lake Champlain-is one of the state’s most picturesque areas. Sandwiched between the Adirondacks to the west and the Green Mountains to the east, the collection of small communities ranges in size from less than 500 to less than 2,000. Though Burlington is only 20 minutes to the south, and Montreal a short drive north, this peaceful 30-mile expanse enjoys a solitude all its own.

Founded in 1993, Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources, Inc., or CIDER, began as a community-based, all volunteer organization offering a broad range of services to enable people to stay independent. The first van was added in 1999 when the group took on a transit component. The member agency of the Franklin-Grand Isle United Way now serves the islands’ 7,000 residents with four vans, five part-time drivers and dozens of volunteers-who not only provide connections but arrange for flu shots, offer computer assistance, make reassurance calls, cook, serve, deliver meals, offer fitness programs, run the equipment-lending closet, provide end-of-life workshops and guidance, take on a handyman project … all matter of tasks that help keep residents in their homes.

CIDER has set up shop in an old house in South Hero, sharing space with a parking reservation phone center-where their accountant works-and an insurance company-where their own agent works. Geographically Robin Way and Jim Holzschuh have not traveled far from their previous careers. IBM, where both men worked as personnel supervisors, sits just 20 miles away in Essex Junction. Though they’re once again sharing a small office, the attic space where Way and Holzschuh orchestrate mobility for Grand Isle County residents is worlds away.

“CIDER volunteers are out helping someone remove an air conditioning unit! We provide a very personal service,” says Way, who came to the agency after a stint as executive director for Chittenden County’s Special Service Transportation Agency. “People need it. We’re so isolated”.

The latest Grand Isle County census counted 400 people over the age of 75. That number is expected to grow nearly 60 percent by 2007. There is one doctor on the islands, but accessing most health care services requires a trip to St. Albans or Burlington. There is no local residential care facility.

“You shouldn’t have to move 30 miles from your home and family. We’re here to try to keep them in their own homes,” says Way. “Every person we keep in their home-that’s one more potential client!”

“We help people stay independent,” adds Holzschuh. “When people can see that, we have a good match. They’re ready to try the bus.”

Pam has lived in South Hero all her life. Her disability has created barriers on her life. She lives with caregivers and rides the CIDER bus everyday. She takes the seat behind St. Hilaire, and the two of them discuss this morning’s chill.

Further along the route, Bear is outside to greet us as we pull up to Herb’s house. The enormous dog recognizes St. Hilaire immediately and eagerly guides her up to the front door. Herb is moving slowly today. He is visually impaired, and many days has difficulty navigating his environment. His youngest son visits him daily but he’s in the military reserves and has been called to duty in Iraq. The deployment weighs heavy on Herb’s mind today. He’s hoping a good game of cribbage will take his mind off such matters for a while.

“About time you got out here Ralphy ol’ boy!” says Pam in her best Jackie Gleason voice.

As Pam and Herb catch up, St. Hilaire quietly contacts dispatch. Someone there immediately phones Club Respite, the St. Albans adult day center that is their destination. By the time the bus arrives, the staff has been alerted that Herb is having a down day and may need some extra attention.

“People take turns to help out,” says St. Hilaire, commending not only her CIDER colleagues and staff at Club Respite but her passengers as well. “Some of our riders just need that hug sometimes.”

St. Hilaire had previous careers as a hospital administrator and a school bus driver in other parts of Vermont, but she eventually returned to the place where she grew up.

“I wanted to come home. This was my way of coming home,” she says of her current career as a driver for CIDER. “The history you get from people in the islands! It’s great.”

Patrick, a CIDER rider, is waiting for the bus at the convenience store. With briefcase in hand, he’s headed to work in St. Albans. He describes his position as a”telephone interviewer-NOT a telemarketer.” He conducts surveys by phone, gathering data on health, disease and behavior across the country. But he is quick to tell you that he is first and foremost a poet and writer, and he offers a taste from one of his lyrical collections. He speaks three languages, and carries in his briefcase a collection of his French poetry. This morning he is recapping his experience at a recent forum where an Ezra Pound protege reviewed his work and declared him “brilliant.” He characterizes CIDER with the same enthusiasm.

“CIDER has saved my life,” Patrick says with a stern face. “They have enabled me to keep working and support my wife and kids.”

CIDER’s vital role in the community infrastructure is evident in the very personal support given to the organization. By bylaw, CIDER is a membership organization with a minimal membership fee of $2.00 per year per family. But what keeps buses rolling and programs in place is the community itself. Beyond a strong volunteer driver base, with few accepting mileage reimbursement, residents come forward in varied, unique and always crucial ways. The annual Apple Blossom Barn and Bake Sale-featuring “more junk than you could ever imagine,” says Way, involves hundreds of hours of sorting and pricing by volunteers. More volunteers work the roads for drive-by coin drops, raising some $500.00 an hour and handing out information on CIDER’s services.

“The community talks CIDER for months!” adds Holzschuh.

“That’s also one of the ways we find more volunteers,” says Way.

Taking the helm as Grand Marshal in the annual 4th of July parade is another way. CIDER is front and center in the community.

Combined with a membership drive, an annual fund drive, the hot dog stand at October’s Applefest-plus the $44.38 left over from money raised for an 8th grade class trip and donated by students-community commitment makes up nearly a third of CIDER’s budgeted revenues.

State Senator Richard Mazza was instrumental in getting CIDER approved for federal transit investment for seniors and people with disabilities. But the system’s services play many more roles in the island communities. As the system grows, it remains rooted in the personal service exemplified by its leaders.

Way and Holzschuh sit at desks across from each other, with phones, fax and files at the ready.

“We’re always anticipating that next phone call,” says Holzschuh. “What will the need be?” As Holzschuh says, “Every phone call changes something you thought you knew for sure!”

“And sometimes,” adds Way, “that means switching gears.”

When Way’s old band used to play in the same club where a nascent Phish got started, nobody could have predicted a future with thousands of global fans following the latter in devout reverence. Last summer, Phish chose to come home for their farewell concert. And those worldwide fans intended to follow them. An estimated 100,000 were expected to journey to a former cornfield in rural northeast Vermont.

Not only did CIDER help fans with disabilities attend the concert, but when torrential rain fell in the days before the concert and wreaked havoc on parking and camping options, the system ran vehicles from the campgrounds to the concert site. Another example of the agency’s flexible service responding to the community’s needs.

Jim reaches for the thick three-ring binder behind his desk. He turns through numerous pages, locating the letter he wants.

“Thank you for all you do for the Champlain Islands,” he reads. The simple note came with a $1,000.00 check enclosed. “We’re doing good stuff and good stuff comes back to us.”

The connections made by the 50 or so volunteer drivers are, of course, priceless. The average trip is 30 miles.

“We just designated a Volunteer of the Month, who we figured has now driven further than around the world for us!” proclaims Way.

Staff driver St. Hilaire estimates that she logs up to several hundred miles on some days. But her mind is never on the odometer.

“You’re talking with people all the time,” she says about her work behind the wheel. “They make me laugh. Sometimes I make them laugh. That’s the best thing.”

Tomorrow is swim club. Some may choose to shop instead. And those who do neither can join Becky at Dunkin Dough-nuts for pastries and coffee. Becky’s prodding Herb to come along with the coffee crowd. As the bus pulls in to Club Respite, he says he’ll think it over. Maybe over a game of cribbage.