Between 2000 and 2003, the Metropolitan Transit Development Board closed down Dial-A-Ride programs around the county. As budget crunches hit, the transit board had to choose between cutting fixed bus-route service or the Dial-A-Ride programs that operated with heavy subsidies. Hard hit by the closures were nondriving seniors, particularly in East County, where there are fewer bus routes than in the city center, and taxi drivers are often loath to make a long drive to pick up a senior for a short ride to the store.
Officials from the cities of El Cajon and La Mesa field daily phone calls from seniors inquiring about senior-ride programs. Their answer: we have no programs, and we don't know if we ever will. "That kind of program is extremely expensive," says Rachel Hurst of La Mesa's planning and development department. "You have to buy vans plus insure and maintain them, and then you have to pay drivers. That's a lot of money, money that a small city like ours just doesn't have."
But in the North County, the city of Vista is in the fifth year of a senior-ride program called Out and About that operates on the modest annual budget of $57,000. The program got started, says Mary Dreibelbis, manager of Vista's Gloria McClellan Senior Center, with a combination of political will and favorable circumstances. "[Our] local senior commission -- seven members appointed by our city council -- they put a lot of...I won't say pressure, but strongly encouraged city staff to do something in the community about senior transportation.
"About the same time," Dreibelbis continues, "Aging and Independence Services -- they are part of the county of San Diego aging department -- had small amounts of money to help with [senior] transportation. They wanted us to help them go grocery shopping and those kinds of things, so we did it on a very small basis. It was $11,000. At the same time, the City of Vista gets federal block-grant money called community-development block grants, or CDBGs, which all the cities and counties get from the federal government. That committee had also designated transportation for seniors a very high priority, but they didn't receive any grant proposals that address that issue. But they knew we were doing it on a small scale through the senior center, and so they said, 'Okay, we've got...$22,000. Are you able to come up with a proposal?' We did, and it mushroomed from there."
Before they launched Out and About, Dreibelbis and other Vista officials looked around for a program after which she could model the Vista version. She found one 60 miles north. "We did a lot of surveys," she recalls, "and we kept hearing about a program in Riverside. So we spent a day up there with them, and they shared everything with us: software, budgets, everything."
Dreibelbis found that the county of Riverside was running a successful program without the costs of buying, maintaining, insuring, and driving shuttle vans. "What they do, exclusively," she explains, "is they provide volunteer drivers for clients in the community, all of Riverside County. [The volunteers] take [the seniors] where they need to go, and the county reimburses these volunteers based on mileage. So we are doing that too. We reimburse volunteers in the community 45 cents per mile to drive their vehicles and take seniors where they need to go."
Not just anybody can be a volunteer driver in the Vista program. They need to be 60 or older. "And they are screened," Dreibelbis says. "They have to submit their drivers' licenses and insurance information, and they go through a screening process. They are required to have insurance to be a volunteer for us, but then the city provides additional insurance through their big umbrella of insurance, and it doesn't cost the city much at all. I think last year it was $200 to cover all of the drivers that we have."
Eliane McClenon, 67, is one of the volunteer drivers in Vista's Out and About program. In a soft voice, she says over the phone, "I like to volunteer, and I live kind of close by the senior center. I was already volunteering for the senior center when I heard about the rides program, so I thought I would give it a try."
One or two days a week, McClenon gives rides to nondriving seniors in her Honda Accord. "A day earlier," she explains, "the center will call and give you the name and address of the person, and then you call them and set up the time you want to pick them up. You know the day already. So you pick them up and take them -- most often to the doctor -- and usually you wait for them to finish. And sometimes they have other errands they want to do: stop at the pharmacy or pick up something at the store. Then you drop them off at home, and they are usually quite happy with the service."
Seventy-six-year-old retired chef George Voymant is another driver for the Out and About program. He got started after he "read an advertisement for it in the paper sometime ago." Voymant gives rides to fellow seniors in his Nissan Maxima "sometimes one day a week, sometimes three or four." He takes part in the program because "It gives me something to do." But he also finds satisfaction in helping those who can't help themselves. "I have a poor woman," Voymant says, "she has to go to dialysis three times a week. I take her one day because it takes four and a half hours to go on that machine. Other drivers take her the other two days. Without us to take her, I don't know what she would do." Vista took its Out and About program a step further than the Riverside program. In addition to the volunteer drivers, "We have three buses and a seven-passenger van," Dreibelbis says.
Monday through Friday, the van and 16 to 20 passenger buses drive around Vista picking up housebound seniors for "doctor visits, grocery shopping, trips to the bank and the hairdressers, and all of those kinds of errands. We also do fun things; in the summertime we take them to the plays in the park. We take them to see Christmas lights at night and different things such as the farmers' market. And what has happened over time is that a social component really started to develop. Now on Fridays they all pick a place, and they go to lunch together on the buses."
"It is a marvelous program," says 74-year-old Betty Devasier, who rides on the Out and About buses two or three times a week. "I stopped driving last year. I had been so independent for so many years, I thought, 'Oh, dear, what am I going to do now?' But this program has been life-changing for me.
"We go grocery shopping on Wednesday," Devasier continues, "and then on Friday we go to Wal-Mart, and then after all the shopping is done, we have lunch somewhere. It is fun. You just could not imagine, nor in my opinion could you meet, any nicer people. And when they drop me off at home, the driver takes my packages, puts them on my porch or driveway for me...Oh, I almost forgot, they will take you to the movies in the afternoon."
Though a chunk of the program's $57,000 budget is devoted to paying part-time drivers -- who need class B drivers' licenses and make $10 per hour -- for the shuttle buses, that is the only vehicle-related cost. Maintenance is done by City of Vista mechanics, and the vans themselves have been awarded to the program through grants. A new 16-passenger bus with a wheelchair lift, bought with a grant from the state Department of Transportation, is on order. "We are very fortunate," Dreibelbis says, "because the city of Vista assists us through their vehicle-maintenance department. They help mechanically, when there is anything that breaks down, and that is where we fuel, that is where we get tune-ups, all those kinds of things, so that saves us money."
Dreibelbis and her staff have made presentations to other cities -- including Santee, Poway, and Escondido -- on how to get senior-ride programs up and running. In her presentations she shares anecdotes: "One lady, her daughter lived in Alpine, so she obviously couldn't be shuttling her mother everywhere, and she was watching her mother rapidly decline. Though the mother had been very healthy when she stopped driving, the depression was setting in because she was within four walls all the time. But she started to use our service, and little by little she completely blossomed because she was getting out and about."