These volunteer drivers help older Vermonters stay connected, even during the pandemic
In Vermont, programs that help older residents get around when they can no longer drive are primarily paid for with Medicaid and federal grants.
But funding is limited, and most of these door-to-door ride services are only possible because of volunteer drivers — usually older Vermonters themselves. The pandemic has strained this model, but many volunteers have stayed behind the wheel, determined to help their neighbors stay connected.
Betty Rozell of Rutland is one of them. Rozell was a waitress for years, and she says she likes to stay busy.
She does that by volunteering nearly five days a week with a program called One2One. The nonprofit provides free rides for residents of Rutland County who are 60 and older, and who can’t get around on their own.
Rozell drives a gray Hyundai, and she let me ride along with her back in early December, before the omicron variant was as prevalent as it is now. We met just after 8 a.m., well before her first client's 8:30 medical appointment, and she mapped out her day.
“Well, we're going to take him to the foot doctor," Rozell said. "And I don't know how long he'll be there, so a lot of times he'll have them call me if he's going to be too late or something. And I'll go to McDonald's, get a coffee or something, you know, rather than go home and come back. Then I'll sit in the parking lot wait for him. And then this afternoon, I have somebody else that goes to the beauty shop.”
Rozell is petite and stylish with short blondish-gray hair and a leopard-print fleece vest. As she flipped on her blinker and made her way through Rutland’s early morning traffic, she explained what she liked about driving.
“I enjoy the people," Rozell said. "A lot of 'em are really quite pleasant. Once in a while you run into you know, problems like with wheelchairs or walkers that are heavy. I know that last week, I just had to tell them, 'I can't you know, I'm not young. I can't be tugging on some of them.'”
Betty Rozell is 84, and older than many of her clients.
Across Vermont, the majority of the volunteer drivers who do this kind of work are retirees. VTrans doesn't track their ages, but all go through extensive background checks.
Most use their own cars and earn a stipend of 56 cents per mile, which Rozell said does not cover her expenses: “No, not with the price of gas today, no.”
She pulled up in front of an older home with a sagging porch and we waited a few minutes. Eventually, an older gentleman made his way slowly down the sidewalk. He leaned heavily on his cane, and it took him a few minutes to get situated in the front seat.
"Good morning," he told us both.
English is not this man’s first language, so conversation was difficult. But Rozell has driven him many times before, so they tried to fill the silence with small talk about the weather.
A few minutes later, she eased her car into a handicap space in front of a local doctor’s office, and her passenger made his way out.
He tried to ask if she was coming inside with him, but Rozell shook her head no. "I'll be here when you're done," she told him. Then she repeated herself more loudly, "I'll be here ... I'll come back."
He nodded and thanked her before turning away, and Rozell watched to make sure he got inside.
Jim Moulton, head of Tri-Valley Transit, which provides public transportation in Addison, Orange and North Windsor counties, estimated that before the pandemic, there were around 400 volunteer drivers like Betty Rozell across the state.
"Vermont is absolutely at the leading edge of volunteer driving in the country," he said. "Vermont is built on, you know, a culture of volunteerism in some way shape or form — our select boards, our school boards, all of those things. We give to our community and we look out for each other. And most Vermonters aren't that wealthy, so what they do have to give is time."
But right now, because of COVID, Moulton thinks as many as half of all the volunteer drivers in Vermont have stopped because of health concerns, which has strained the system.
"Yeah, to be honest with you, I had no idea that there was such a need till I started doing it. And listening to the people say how thankful they were, and how desperate they would have been if not for us.”
Being 84 and at higher risk, Rozell admits driving during the pandemic has been a little scary. "But I carried my hand sanitizer, and did what we were told. And it did slow down a lot then, because a lot of doctors offices were closed.”
While trips slowed dramatically at the start of the pandemic, things have been picking up. And with fewer volunteers, that's put more pressure on Rozell and One2One’s 13 other active drivers.
"For a while, 'cuz we were shorthanded, we were really busy in November," she said. "And like tomorrow I'll have three different people I'll be driving."
Still, Rozell said she never considered not driving because of the pandemic.
"People need to get where they need to go and they were vaccinated," she says nodding. "So, I felt a little safer. You know, we all do the best we can.”
Matt Keith was also not deterred by the pandemic. He became a volunteer driver for One2One in August 2019, and now drives at least 300 miles a week for the program.
"Yeah, to be honest with you, I had no idea that there was such a need till I started doing it," Keith said. "And listening to the people say how thankful they were, and how desperate they would have been if not for us.”
Keith is 67, retired and lives in Rutland. He thinks of his time behind the wheel as community service, and said many of his clients have become like family: "I drive one guy to Burlington twice a week, and he and I have become great friends."
Keith said his passengers have great stories to tell, and he's learned a lot from them.
“When you see some of the challenges these people are facing medically, and you know quality of life challenges that they overcome... it's very humbling,” he added.
Tammy Brown, the coordinator of One2One, said she’s been trying to recruit more drivers, but the pandemic and low reimbursement rate has made it difficult.
Now, when people call seeking rides, she said medical trips often have to be prioritized over trips to the store or the senior center. Even then, there’s no guarantee someone will get a ride when they want or need one.
"But we do our best," she said.
Programs like this across Vermont, that pair seniors with volunteer drivers, are feeling the same pinch.
Back in Betty Rozell’s Hyundai, a phone call let her know her client's medical appointment was over. A nurse walked out with him and told us he needed a walker. Over the next hour, we drove to two different pharmacies and a medical equipment business on a quest to get one.
Ultimately, it was unsuccessful.
These encounters can be frustrating, Betty admitted. But she said volunteering feels good, and she looks forward to it.
"I'm helping them, and that's what they need," She said. It's why she’ll be back tomorrow driving someone else.
Ironically, when I asked her if this job makes her think about what she’ll do when she can’t drive, she laughed a little uncomfortably and says she hadn't given it a thought.
That’s the thing. No one wants to.
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