This Spotlight on Service post was originally scheduled for publication in April 2020. In compliance with the stay at home order and concern for both their drivers and passengers health and safety, ETS had to reduce its transportation services. As the State of Illinois now enters Phase 4, ETS is able to begin providing transportation services. New protocols in place require both drivers and passengers to wear masks and the passenger (if physically able) is asked to sit in the back seat to increase social distance.
Volunteers in any capacity often say they get tremendous satisfaction in helping others, and their recipients’ gratitude is reward enough. Bena Gerber, a Senior Corps-RSVP member who drives for Escorted Transportation Service Northwest (ETS) is no exception. Yet for her, there’s an added bonus. The people she brings to doctor appointments, blood tests, or other necessary treatments are not just clients. They’ve become her friends and family.
“I’m filling in for kids who aren’t able to drive their parents when they need it,” she said. “So in a way, I am family. I even bonded with one of my passengers over our love of cats. I haven’t met a grumpy passenger yet.”
Bena appreciates that ETS allows her a flexible schedule and that the process for signing onto the ETS web site is simple and user friendly. She regularly checks the site for seniors in her area who need transportation. (Clients are asked to request a ride at least one week in advance.) ETS lists the clients’ appointment information, which includes the date, time, destination, and the expected length of the appointment. For the driver’s convenience, ETS also provides a link to Google Maps. When Bena sees a request that works for her, she responds by clicking the ETS “I accept” box. A short time later she receives an email from ETS confirming the appointment and pickup time. She usually drives about two or three times a week, but ETS volunteers can pick and choose the rides that work for their schedule.
On driving day, after getting her client settled in the front seat (always the front seat, because it gives the feeling that this is a family member driving), Bena does something that not many drivers would consider: She offers her passenger homemade cookies. “Well, they’re sorta kinda homemade,” she explained. “I follow a recipe using cake mix. I roll the dough into little balls and freeze them. On the day of a drive, I’ll pull out a few from the freezer and bake them.”
Once they arrive at the client’s destination, Bena will sometimes sit in the waiting room and read during her passenger’s appointment. On the way home, they share family stories, and often the client reminisces about her childhood and other life experiences. “It’s wonderful,” Bena said. “You’re traveling with living history. You get to know them and we even sit in the driveway while we finish the conversation. They all look forward to a day out.”
Bena recalled that once when she picked up a client for the first time in a senior residence, the woman said, “My friend said she hoped I’d get the Cookie Lady.” “So now I have a title,” Bena laughed. “It’s such a small thing but it makes them so happy.”
Her advice to people interested in becoming an ETS driver: “Volunteering is not a one size fits all. I tried several volunteer possibilities and decided what made me the most comfortable and gave the most satisfaction. You need to be comfortable around seniors and be a good listener. Many live alone and long for conversations.” But even more meaningful, Bena stated, is the excellent support and appreciation she receives from Dallas Tomlin, executive director for ETS, and the ETS staff. They were especially understanding when Bena was forced to cancel a driving appointment when her cat needed an emergency trip to the vet. They also understand Bena’s greatest challenge: Driving in bad weather. “I’m a snow-driving wimp,” she said. “When I asked ‘What if I have to cancel’ I learned that seniors don’t want to go out in the cold anyway.”
Dallas has high praise for Bena and all that she does. “She is an amazing volunteer and we love having her…We greatly appreciate all the rides Bena takes, but it is the extra caring and compassion that she provides to our passengers that makes Bena so special.”
ETS is always in need of drivers and the requirements and training to be a driver are fairly simple. As with nearly all volunteer programs, background and motor vehicle checks are required. ETS also gives a brief tutorial on its online RideScheduler program. Transportation is offered for general checkups, dental, vision, dialysis, wound care, lab work, physical therapy, etc. Passengers must be able to get into and out of a car unassisted.
Those interested in driving seniors for medical appointments (and maybe making a new friend or two) can click here to “express interest” for this volunteer position.
Written by Janet Souter, Senior Corps-RSVP Member
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