The idea for Care Cars started on a winter day in Spokane nearly 26 years ago.
In 1984, an elderly woman was waiting inside a doctor’s office for a Spokane Transit Authority van on a cold afternoon when she ventured outside. Concerned she would miss out on her transportation home, the woman waited in the freezing weather until the van arrived. Her subsequent illness called attention to the lack of adequate support for a specific senior population that needed more detailed care getting to and from essential appointments.
“It alerted the community that there was a problem,” said Pam Sloan, director of Elder Services, the local nonprofit group that has overseen the program since its beginnings in 1985.
The comprehensive approach would rely on a dedicated group of volunteers who drive local seniors to their scheduled visits, wait during the appointment and then return them home. The shuttle also includes volunteers confirming counsel given at a medical office, helping senior passengers to remain organized and aware.
“As good as STA and paratransit is, it doesn’t always have the capability to handle all kinds of people,” said Nick Beamer, executive director of Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, the parent agency of Elder Services.
Over the years, the program has provided thousands of senior residents with reassurance when friends and family are out of town or unable to help with transportation. In 2002, volunteer drivers covered over 45,000 miles, helping around 300 seniors. In some cases, those in need have no one other than Care Cars to call while STA buses and vans do not serve rural areas like Rockford or Tekoa.
“Care Cars is part of successful aging or aging in place,” said Beamer. “Having a transportation piece like this is an essential part of a aging friendly community.”
Even though volunteers comprise an important part of the effort, Care Cars still deals with its share of administrative costs. Elder Services employees help to coordinate routes, call volunteers and get the word out about the program. Drivers are also reimbursed 50 cents a mile, although some defer the gas money, offering it instead as a donation.
While the funding road has not always been smooth for Care Cars, local benefactors have emerged throughout the years to support the cause. In 2002, the Spokane County Regional Support Network stepped up with a $21,000 donation that helped supplement the budget after Care Cars’ primary sponsor, Spokane Mental Health, announced a reduction in funding. That same year, fundraisers and other donations raised around $15,000.
In 2005, there was talk of shelving Care Cars altogether after a shortfall of $58,000 from the Spokane County Regional Support Network. A series of public hearings included appeals from staff, volunteers and clients to salvage the program.
That same year, the Spokane Valley Foundation, a senior advocacy group in operation for over 30 years, closed down due to budget problems. The agency had provided transportation for dozens of seniors with its own vehicles and worked with STA to provide additional service.
Sloan recalls the “piecemealing” that was done to keep the program running during a series of lean years. Meanwhile, a pair of funding requests to the city of Spokane Valley went unanswered.
Between grants, donations and help from governmental entities like the Spokane City Council and Spokane County commissioners, Care Cars was able to weather the storm.
“We just all pitched in,” Sloan said. “We volunteered our own time to keep the program running. We all understood the value of it.”
In 2008, ALTCEW began working with agencies like the Spokane Regional Transportation Council to apply for federal funds under a program established by President Bush. The application eventually translated into a two-year grant for $250,000.
ALTCEW will be required to generate a 50-percent match for the grant, but can include volunteer hours at a rate of $18-an-hour. Last year, 35 volunteer drivers donated around 4,000 hours to the program.
Beamer said the grant will likely mean expanding Care Cars soon to include non-senior clients who may disabled or homebound. In the meantime, Sloan said the efforts of devoted volunteers continue to make a difference in the lives of hundreds of area residents.
“We save our thank you letters from clients,” Sloan said. “The seniors we help say they didn’t know there were people out there who cared that much.”
Want to find out more?
To learn more about Care Cars and other programs through Aging and Long Term Care of Eastern Washington, call Elder Services at 458-7450.