North Hills Community Outreach, St. Margaret Foundation provide free shuttle service for seniors
Jean Genter, 80, and Jane Malanowski, 68, boarded a 10-passenger bus at their Shaler apartment building.
“We're going to the Harley-Davidson dealer on Route 8, right?” joked driver Dave Stroud, 67, of Ross.
In reality, the Free Rides for Seniors shuttle volunteers would spend the next two hours transporting people 60 and older to grocery stores and medical appointments in Shaler, Etna and Millvale.
North Hills Community Outreach operates the program in partnership with the St. Margaret Foundation, which has donated $86,000 for the shuttles in 2018.
“St. Margaret Foundation created the Free Rides for Seniors Program to help keep our senior citizens thriving and independent,” said Mary Lee Gannon, foundation president. “We are aware of the incidence of depression in senior citizens. We want to make sure they … stay vibrant, independent and healthy.”
In addition to the aforementioned service areas, two volunteer-staffed shuttles provide free transit from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekdays, to UPMC St. Margaret, banks, pharmacies, shopping destinations and other locations in Blawnox, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, Oakmont, Verona, Sharpsburg, Tarentum, Natrona Heights, Cheswick and Brackenridge. Since 2005, the program has provided 62,371 rides to nearly 800 seniors.
“We can see that we have had a major impact on their (senior citizens') health, their social lives and just their overall lives just because they can get out. … They're out and about and are a vital part of our community,” said Kerry Keegan Mulhern, NHCO program team leader.
Malanowski said that, prior to using the shuttle, she paid $30 for taxi trips to the grocery store and $15 for transportation to medical appointments.
Genter said the service is “great,” especially as she recently gave up her vehicle.
“It's hard not driving. It (car maintenance) was costing me a fortune.”
In addition to a volunteer driver, a dispatcher assists with navigation, helps guests board and disembark the bus, with their seat belts and groceries, and answers calls from guests scheduling pickups. While the shuttle is not handicap-accessible, canes and walkers are permitted.
According to Mulhern, riders and volunteers often form familial bonds when volunteers schedule regular four-hour shifts.
After Etna residents Bonnie Eckhardt, 67, and Ginny Cooper, 63, finished discussing their plans with dispatcher Sheri Nely, 69, of Ross, their driver jokingly informed them that they did not board a party bus. In turn, Robert Jamison, 64, of Etna, performed an impression fit for a Cheech & Chong movie.
“I am a professional Santa and also a professional clown and impressionist,” he said, noting that, during the holidays, he wears a Santa costume during his bus rides.
Nely, a retired Duquesne University employee, requested various impersonations.
“We do laugh and it just breaks up the week,” she said regarding her volunteer assignment.
There is currently a need for volunteers to serve on the Route 28 corridor, near Tarentum and Brackenridge. Shifts start and end at Lighthouse Pointe Village at Chapel Harbor — the UPMC retirement community donates offices and parking spaces for the program.
Drivers, between ages 25 and 75, must submit their driving record; those over 70 must obtain a medical release from their physicians. No special license is needed. Mulhern said driving the shuttle is “a breeze,” after completing training. All volunteers obtain and complete criminal and child abuse clearances.
Stroud, a retired corporate attorney, said the best aspect of volunteering is interacting with the riders.
“The good thing is they all appreciate it a lot,” Stroud said.
For more information about participating in the program as a volunteer or rider, call 412-449-0151.
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.