Melodee Lister enjoys being around people. She was looking for something to do where she could be with people but, because she's a person with a disability, something where she could sit down. A friend told her about volunteer transportation at Kennebec Valley Community Action Program (KVCAP), a NeighborWorks network organization in Maine. She gets reimbursed for her mileage, she says. But the main reason the program was the perfect fit for Lister? "I like to help people."
Lister has been driving for the program three days a week for three years, taking neighbors and strangers to the doctor, the dentist, chemotherapy appointments and the methadone clinic. She's also taking adults to community centers where they can work on life skills. She's driven children to preschool. "I absolutely love it," she says. "Once in a while you get the same people, but I'm still getting people I've never met before."
Most people are very appreciative, she says. "They thank you when they get in and when they get out."
She drives passengers to Bangor and Brewer and Skowhegan, through all types of weather. Now, with COVID, she drives wearing a mask and with Lysol wipes, cleaning her car between riders, she says. Even with masks, she can still tell when people are smiling.
This month, communities across the country will celebrate National Good Neighbor Day on September 28. At NeighborWorks America and its network organizations, where the focus is on strengthening communities, people act as good neighbors all the time. And this year, as organizations pivot to help community members dealing with job and income losses as a result of COVID-19, many have supplemented their usual services with supplying basic needs, like food. That was true for the drivers at KVCAP, too, who, when stay-at-home orders first started, began delivering food, diapers and medication, especially when regular doctor's visits slowed down, says Steve Soule, the retired teacher and principal who serves as volunteer coordinator. Now, those appointments are picking back up again.
Edward Wilshusen had been going through a hard time when he found out about the driving program and applied as a volunteer. That was more than six years ago. He's been driving with them ever since. "I like helping people," he says. "They really appreciate the rides."
Passengers aren't allowed to choose drivers, but Wilshusen says he was paired with a client who needed consistency to feel comfortable. "I've been transporting him for three years," Wilshusen says.
Drivers maintain a code of confidentiality. They're not allowed to ask questions. But sometimes, Wilshusen says, "people like to talk. I'm not going to tell them not to." Even if it's a short drive, he may learn someone's life story. But it doesn't go any farther than the doors of his Impala, he says.
"It's a good feeling knowing that I can help somebody get through their day a little better," Wilshusen says.
Drivers participating in the program range in age from 23 to 88, says Soule, the coordinator. "We use a phone app, so everything is done electronically," he says. "When the new program started two years ago and we switched from paper to the telephone app, I had some drivers who had never had a cell phone before."
KVCAP provides roughly 1,400 rides a day at their peak. "These rides are so important to these people," Soule says. "Sometimes it can take six months to get a doctor's appointment." So it's important to get the client there on time.
Some volunteers drive 100 miles a week, Soule says. Some drive 1,000. "We leave a huge impact on the community."
As volunteer coordinator, Soule's tips include:
- "I try to check in on the drivers frequently, just to ask how things are going and so they know I am there to help. I think most understand that I truly care."
- "Remember to let the volunteers know they are appreciated and important. I have my job because of them."
More information about volunteer drivers is on KVCAP's website.