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Let it ride

A volunteer program coming to the metro will mean newfound mobility for elderly and vision-impaired people.

Tim Farley April 24th, 2013

Sandy Webster hasn’t driven to the grocery store, beauty shop or her favorite restaurant in 11 years.

Tracy Senat
Credit: Mark Hancock

In 2002, she lost her sight and forfeited her driving privileges.

Since then, she’s been relying on mass transit and other social service agencies for transportation.

But each of them has limitations, which means Webster and others in her situation can’t get up and go at a moment’s notice.

“It’s a big adjustment from running to your car and going to the store or the movie whenever you want, to making plans days in advance [for a ride],” she said.

Webster has relied on friends and family, but she admits even that takes its toll.

That’s why she was overjoyed when she heard about Independent Transportation Network America, a nonprofit volunteer program that will soon serve Oklahoma City’s elderly, vision-impaired and others who are unable to drive.

ITNAmerica operates in 27 U.S. cities — including Kansas City, Mo.; Boston; Cincinnati and San Diego — and recently recorded its 500,000th ride since its inception in 2004.

There is no specific timetable for the start of the OKC program, said Tracy Senat, associate director of the Oklahoma County Medical Society (OCMS), which supports ITNAmerica.

The transportation program offers a 24/7, low-cost transportation service through a network of volunteer drivers. Over the past nine years, ITNAmerica drivers nationwide have recorded 2.3 million miles.

There are no restrictions on where riders can go. Destination spots could include restaurants, medical appointments, grocery shopping, exercise, a visit with friends or even a movie.

“Just because you can’t drive doesn’t mean you can’t have a full life,” Senat said. “This serves as an alternative and to fill some gaps for what’s out there and not out there. This is a membership organization, not a taxi service.”

Living with dignity
Mass transit buses end their routes at 6 p.m. on weekdays and do not operate on Sunday. When public transportation and family and friends are not available, Webster sometimes turns to cabs, which can be expensive.

“Recently, I went to a meeting at the Library for the Blind in downtown Oklahoma City, and I live in far northwest part of town. It cost me $60 to go there and come back,” she said.

“You have to be able to afford to get where you want to go or you’re just a shut-in in your home.”

Senat said the ITNAmerica program allows senior citizens to continue their lives with dignity.

“The passengers sit in the front seat with the driver,” she said.

“This allows people to age with grace. They shouldn’t have to beg for rides.”

Dr. Mark Mellow, president of the ITN Central Oklahoma board of directors, said the area’s medical community supports the program.

“They have an interest in this because doctors believe patients have better outcomes when they keep their medical appointments,” he told Oklahoma City Council members last month. “You take away the keys from somebody in this city, and you’re basically confining them to their house.”

Ward 6 Councilwoman Meg Salyer praised the program’s mission.

“It’s a terrific alternative for seniors whose driving has become more difficult,” she said.

Kentucky experience
Laura Dake, director of the ITN affiliate in Lexington, Ky., said the agency started there in 2008 and is on schedule to hit the 25,000-ride mark sometime this month.

Meg Salyer
Credit: Shannon Cornman

“We don’t even have to advertise anymore. It’s mostly word of mouth,” she said. “It really fills a niche in this community.”

About 40 percent of Lexington’s riders are regular customers. The transportation fees there include a $3 pickup fee and $1.50 per mile.

“It’s about 40-percent cheaper than a taxi ride,” Dake said.

The biggest challenge in Lexington has been keeping enough drivers to accommodate the increasing number of riders. “You can scale your program to the population as long as you have enough drivers,” Dake said. “I think I’ve trained 80, maybe more, people as drivers, but not everyone wants to do it all the time.”

Before OKC’s ITN affiliate can begin offering rides, some organizational plans must be completed, including the hiring of an executive director and the establishment of fares riders will pay.

The local affiliate of ITNAmerica also is seeking a tax-exempt status in order to raise more operational funds.

Criminal and driving background checks will be conducted on the volunteer drivers, who will use their own vehicles.

Potential riders or drivers interested in the program can call 702- 0500.

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