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Westchester’s "Wheels on Wheels"

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RideConnect delivers affordable transportation to seniors throughout our county

Good morning! Today is Friday, January 7, and you are reading today’s section of Examiner+, a digital newsmagazine serving Westchester, Putnam, and the surrounding Hudson Valley.

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“It’s like the floodgates opened,” says Karen Ganis, the founder and director of the county-wide free transportation service RideConnect of Westchester. “When the pandemic receded everybody wanted to catch up with doctors’ appointments, visit their friends, get their hair done, go to the library or gym, play cards at the senior center, and do their own shopping again.”

By “everybody,” Ganis means the thousands of RideConnect clients, mostly over age 60, in nearly every corner of Westchester. RideConnect, one of 50 programs run by Family Services of Westchester (FSW), coordinates free rides by community volunteers throughout our county. Despite the emergence of the omicron variant, “the program is running as usual,” Ganis reports. “I do believe that COVID is here to stay, and we are all going to need to figure out how to navigate as best we can.” Especially for something as vital as transportation.

RideConnect’s mission is “to provide easy and cost-effective transportation options to foster independence for older adults, age 60+, who have limited mobility options” in our sprawling and diverse county. The program both helps set up free rides by volunteers and offers referrals to other affordable county transportation.

“The good news is people are coming in the door to volunteer, but it’s not enough. Every time we get one volunteer, we get 10 new clients.” —Karen Ganis, Director, RideConnect

“When we launched RideConnect in 2012 we gave 993 rides and referrals,” says Ganis. “In 2020, we coordinated 27,808 rides and referrals. That’s 2,800 percent growth! The good news is people are coming in the door to volunteer, but it’s not enough. Every time we get one volunteer, we get 10 new clients. Last year we had to turn away about 2,000 clients who needed rides since we didn’t have available drivers.”

The roster of volunteer drivers in late 2021 stands at around 300 people. Finding more drivers has become a key goal, especially for densely populated southern Westchester.

A Flexible Volunteer Opportunity

People have a variety of reasons why they volunteer with RideConnect. For Pat Vosburg of Pleasantville, it’s because she’s a staunch believer that “we all age better and more happily in our homes. Whatever I can do to facilitate that, I will.”

But recruiting volunteer drivers isn’t always easy. “‘Come drive old people’ may not sound as fun as walking puppies for the ASPCA or reading books for Big Brothers, Big Sisters,” says Ganis about her nonprofit. “But once drivers do a ride, they are hooked. You quickly realize, ‘Wow, I’ve really changed a life. And all I did was drive them!’”

 “It’s been eye-opening how many non-driving older folks are living alone. As we chat while I drive, I’ve learned I’m sometimes the only person they’ve talked to in a while.” —Tom Maloney, RideConnect volunteer driver

Tom Maloney, a retired financial executive living in Somers, has been doing RideConnect drives since the program started. He says, “It’s been eye-opening how many non-driving older folks are living alone. As we chat while I drive, I’ve learned I’m sometimes the only person they’ve talked to in a while. Often I’m giving them a ride to the doctor, and I try to provide friendly conversation to take their mind off their medical issues.”  

The social connection goes both ways. Longtime Mount Kisco volunteer driver Patricia Jordan says, “I’ve learned so much from so many wonderful people.” The short video below from a few years ago follows Jordan giving a ride to David Bubser, a lively northern Westchester RideConnect client who frequently accessed the service for medical appointments and his own volunteer activities. Jordan says she and Dave became good friends over the miles.

Volunteer Patricia Jordan drops off client David Bubser at his apartment in Bedford.

A promo video for RideConnect seeking to recruit volunteer drivers.

While RideConnect may not have the cute factor of puppies or kids, it does have the valuable benefit of flexibility. 

“There’s no set schedule or hours,” says Ganis. “Volunteers get to choose when they want and where they want to drive. We have teachers who only do rides in the summer. Other drivers can only give weekend or evening rides. We have parents who bring along their kids (which the seniors absolutely adore). Some volunteers like doing 10-minute drives, others choose to drive someone to an appointment across the county. And there are people who can only do a drive once a month—which is great because that’s one less client I have to turn down.”

The People that Make the Wheels Go ’Round

While the volunteer drivers may be the heart and soul of the RideConnect program, what keeps things humming is the small Katonah–based staff that connects clients and drivers. Mobility Manager Marietta C. Manoni runs the RideConnect call center consisting of four unflappable transportation counselors who handle the phoned-in ride requests.

Mobility Manager Marietta Manoni (left) and Director Karen Ganis, at RideConnect’s Katonah offices. (Photo: RideConnect)

For those wishing to become RideConnect clients, it starts with a phone call to 914-242-7433 to introduce yourself. “We’re not a taxi or on-demand service, so clients have to sign up for this program first,” says Manoni. “And since we are lining up volunteers for the drives, we require clients to give us 7 days’ notice about their ride requests and cancel in a timely way if they no longer need the ride.” Clients also are asked to sign a simple “terms of service” agreement that gives them specifics about how RideConnect works, reminding them that rides are done by unpaid community volunteers, so having a backup plan for an important appointment is always wise.

Mount Vernon–based client Syl Morrone is a happy client. “The RideConnect family always gets me to my various appointments in a pleasant, dependable manner. I’ll bet if necessary they’d even get me to the church on time!”

Manoni also manages the marketing program for RideConnect in a continuing effort to find more volunteer drivers. New volunteers meet with her at the RideConnect offices to fill out an application and get a copy made of their driver’s license and proof of vehicle insurance. Drivers then use the Assisted Rides online grid to self-assign open rides that fit their schedules.

RideConnect spreads the word about its program at various gatherings across the county (Photo: Facebook/RideConnect)

Longtime Somers driver Tom Maloney says, “RideConnect’s been such an easy way to give back to the community. It basically costs me a little time and some gas. And it’s my call when and where I want to drive. But mostly, I love the good feeling I get every time I’ve given a ride. Let’s just say I’m well aware that the day’s going to come when I’m going to need help myself.”

When not writing, editing, or helping clients create their online branding, Laura E. Kelly is on the lookout for fun pickleball games around her home base of Mount Kisco.

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