Tom Eblen

Tom Eblen: Non-profit transportation network celebrates 50,000 rides in seven years

Roger Parry drove Ruth Mercer, left, and Ethel Stepp on Dec. 11 on the 50,000th trip of ITN Bluegrass, a non-profit organization that provides transportation for elderly and visually impaired people in Lexington.
Roger Parry drove Ruth Mercer, left, and Ethel Stepp on Dec. 11 on the 50,000th trip of ITN Bluegrass, a non-profit organization that provides transportation for elderly and visually impaired people in Lexington.

Ruth Mercer hasn’t been able to drive for some time, so when doctors last spring told her husband, Jerry, that he should quit driving, she was concerned how they would get around.

The couple recently gave up their home of 43 years off Clays Mill Road to move into an apartment at their daughter’s house, but they didn’t want to be constantly asking her for transportation.

Then somebody told them about ITN Bluegrass, a non-profit agency that gives rides to people older than 60 or with visual impairment in Lexington and parts of Jessamine and Woodford counties.

“It has afforded me a lot of freedom,” said Mercer, who uses the service two or three times a week. “I really appreciate what they do. I don’t feel like I’m in a cab. I feel like I’m having a friend drive me.”

Mercer got a surprise, though, when ITN driver Roger Parry picked up her and Ethel Stepp from medical appointments Dec. 11 to give them rides home. “The bells and whistles were going off,” she said.

That trip marked ITN Bluegrass’ 50,000th ride since its founding in 2008.

“Each one of those rides is a way of keeping someone active, independent and connected to the community,” said Laura Dake, executive director of ITN Bluegrass. “Each of those rides is important to somebody.”

ITN stands for International Transportation Network, and ITN Bluegrass is one of several dozen affiliates of ITN America. The organization was started in Portland, Maine, by Katherine Freund after her 3-year-old son was hit and nearly killed in 1988 by a car driven by an 84-year-old.

ITN Bluegrass now gives about 900 rides per month in Lexington, northern Jessamine County and the Versailles area to about 150 individuals.

Each one of those rides is a way of keeping someone active, independent and connected to the community

Laura Dake, executive director, ITN Bluegrass

Here’s how the service works:

ITN Bluegrass’ approximately 370 members pay $50 a year. When they want to schedule a ride, they call ITN Bluegrass and a dispatcher arranges it. Rides are available any day at any time, and dispatchers make note of passengers’ special needs.

There is a $3.50 pickup fee, a charge of $1.60 per mile and a 20 percent discount for sharing a ride. No money changes hands then: payments are deducted from each member’s ITN Bluegrass account. Drivers, most of whom are volunteers, cannot accept tips.

“We provide arm-through-arm, door-through-door service,” Dake said. “We have a lot of regular drivers, and they get to become family and friends.

Not all members are unable to drive, Dake said. Some are just uncomfortable driving certain places at certain times, such as Nicholasville Road in the rain.

Some older people don’t use the service often, but get memberships as backups to regular transportation in case they should need it. ITN Bluegrass also has “road scholarships” available for people with low incomes.

Most rides average just a few miles. While many are to medical appointments and the grocery, there are no restrictions on the destination. ITN Bluegrass makes more trips to hairdressers than food stores.

“People will ask their children to take them to the grocery, because that seems important,” Dake said. “With us, ladies don’t have to feel guilty about wanting to go to the beauty shop.”

Dake said studies have shown that elderly people without easy access to transportation end up going to nursing homes five years or more before those who do. Lack of transportation also can contribute to depression and substance abuse in the elderly, she said.

Most ITN Bluegrass drivers are volunteers, although some are hired to fill out the schedule and make sure there are always drivers available when members need them.

Volunteer drivers are paid mileage reimbursement. Many donate that to friends, family, the organization or bank the credit for future use when they are no longer able to drive.

“This has been such a labor of love for me, to see it grow and flouish” said Dake, who has been with the organization since the beginning, when she was the assistant to founding director Gale Reece.

ITN Bluegrass is always seeking new volunteer drivers, said Dake, who often drives members herself.

“It’s nice to be in contact with the folks we serve, to hear their stories, their struggles, their joys,” she said. “It teaches you that you can still do a lot when you’re older — you just have to be able to get there.”

More information: (859) 252-8665 or Itnbluegrass.org.

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