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Petaluma volunteer program provides rides for elderly

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When Jack Rhodes pulled up to the affordable housing complex where 85-year-old Ellie Jaquish lives, he could have been driving a stretch limousine. The iRIDE Petaluma volunteer was behind the wheel of his 2013 Honda Accord, but Jaquish felt like royalty.

She’s among the senior citizens receiving free door-to-door rides through the volunteer iRIDE program sponsored by the nonprofit Petaluma People Services Center, in collaboration with the Petaluma Senior Center.

Some clients are on limited incomes; many need the additional assistance other transportation services can’t provide.

Jaquish was using a walker and carrying a sports bag on a recent morning as she waited outside her apartment for Rhodes, 72, who averages 15 to 20 hours weekly as a volunteer driver. He’s logged some 4,500 miles since beginning with iRIDE in March.

Rhodes greeted Jaquish, helped her to the front passenger seat of his sedan and placed her belongings in his trunk. The two made the 10-minute drive to a local gym, where Jaquish exercises in a heated, indoor swimming pool, something that’s been critical to her success losing weight and dropping several dress sizes.

She is grateful to Rhodes and the other volunteer drivers who bring her back and forth to the gym three days a week, using their own vehicles and gasoline without reimbursement.

“I just don’t know what I’d do without them. They are wonderful,” said Jaquish, who gave up driving in her late 70s, after a frightening incident when her foot went numb and slipped off the brake.

“I just felt like Jell-O. I took the car home and said I can’t drive anymore,” she recalled.

Jaquish can’t afford a taxi several times a week, doesn’t have friends or relatives able to drive her often and finds it difficult to negotiate other transportation options.

Lauren Garibaldi, the iRIDE Petaluma coordinator and its only paid staff, said volunteer drivers provide more than just transportation. As an integral part of the Petaluma People Services Center program, they are helping elderly clients “age in place” by assuring they keep medical appointments, get groceries and household supplies, and stay engaged in their community.

Some, like one 100-year-old client, schedule rides to the local senior center to meet friends and participate in activities. A pair of elderly men developed a friendship after riding together a few times a week to a Petaluma program for frail seniors. A visually impaired woman in her 80s meets with friends in Marin County for bowling after getting a ride to the local SMART train station.

Drivers get to know their frequent riders and develop bonds, too. Volunteers contact Garibaldi if they suspect changes in health or welfare so she can investigate and contact a family member or caseworker, if necessary.

“We’re their eyes, too,” said Garibaldi, 65.

The program currently has 315 registered clients and 16 volunteer drivers, most drivers “young seniors themselves who have time and want to help,” Garibaldi said. On average, about 300 rides are provided within the Petaluma area each month.

All iRIDE Petaluma clients must be local residents at least 60 years old and ambulatory; the majority use canes or walkers or have difficulty negotiating stairs. The program also helps younger people with disabilities, typically those in their 50s.

Many clients don’t have the stamina to wait for buses or extend their outings with longer wait times required for other services, particularly after tiresome activities.

Although priority is given to those needing rides to medical appointments, clients also can request transportation to places like hair salons or department stores “and can go anywhere if we have drivers,” Garibaldi said. “Sometimes it’s the only outing they may get for the week.”

Garibaldi provides rides on occasion, and is moved by clients’ gratitude.

“It is very heartwarming. They’re so happy to see you,” she said. “Most of them are past drivers and for whatever reason they aren’t driving. It’s very difficult when you are used to being independent.”

Some clients have cars but can’t afford costly repairs; medical conditions prevent others from driving. Many are in their 80s and 90s.

Established in late 2014 and supported with client donations and funding from the Sonoma County Area Agency on Aging, iRIDE Petaluma has proven so successful that Petaluma People Services Center is planning to expand the program to Rohnert Park.

“All we need is two people to say they’ll drive and we’re set up,” Garibaldi said. “The program is in place and ready to go, and we have the funding.”

The iRIDE program is one of several volunteer driver programs in Sonoma County, most offered through senior centers and independently run. The various programs can supplement city or county bus services or Paratransit.

Garibaldi said some iRIDE Petaluma clients use a combination of transportation services, perhaps taking a bus or paying for a taxi one way, but requesting a volunteer driver for the trip home.

The program limits clients to three excursions per week, simply so Garibaldi can accommodate the many requests she receives.

For drivers like Rhodes, iRIDE Petaluma provides a gratifying opportunity to make a difference for others.

A retired journalist and communications official, Rhodes considers his volunteer work “immensely satisfying.” Like fellow drivers, he enjoys a flexible schedule while providing a much-needed service in his community.

“I meet these truly inspirational people,” he said. “Most have had interesting lives and have overcome a lot, in many cases.”

The iRIDE program gives clients “a freedom they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Rhodes said. “It’s great to know I’m doing something worthwhile with my time.”