October 11, 2005 > Care-A-Van
Lifesavers that go the extra mile
Firefighters Sean Kenison and Brian Stewart spend much of their work week assisting the Newark community to address safety concerns, battling fires and responding to accidents and/or medical emergencies. Community fire service professionals are required to maintain a high level of training and dedication to the citizens who depend on them as well as other safety professionals for a secure environment. For many, long hours on the job are balanced by time off with family and friends. But, Sean and Brian have found an additional avenue to demonstrate support of their community.
For the last year, both have been involved in an all-volunteer driver program called Care-A-Van for Kids that provides seriously-ill children and their parents with no cost rides to the Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital and Clinics at the Stanford University Medical Center in Palo Alto for treatment. In some cases, this is the only way parents of hospitalized children or premature infants are able to visit their children. According to Erin Champion, manager of the program, Care-A-Van often provides a critical difference for children and parents. She adds, "These people have exhausted all other resources."
The bright red Care-A-Van assigned to Sean and Brian currently makes the trek from the East Bay to Stanford Medical Center's Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital almost every week. As the Care-A-Van for Kids program attracts more volunteer drivers, the number of trips is expected to increase dramatically. Champion says that when Care-A-Van began operations in San Mateo County in 1998, five rides were provided; that has now grown to 235 rides in the last fiscal year. Care-A-Van currently provides free rides to the hospital and clinics from six counties including Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito.
Alameda County joined the Care-A-Van program primarily due to the efforts of Newark's recently retired Fire Chief Mike Preston. He convinced Newark of the importance of this service and the city allowed the van to be housed at Newark Fire Station #3 on Ruschin Drive. Although the van is available for transporting children and/or parents, Champion says that some volunteers prefer to use their own vehicles.
Care-A-Van volunteer drivers come from all walks of life. Currently, 35 volunteers include off-duty fire fighters, school teachers, police officers, realtors and retirees. A recent gift from the Newark Optimist Club of soft and cuddly teddy bears for the kids came in handy for Kenison. He had the honor of presenting the first four teddy bears from Newark to Luz Marmelejo, the mother of newborn quadruplets! Marmelejo, unable to drive, is transported to the hospital to feed her babies who are expected to remain in neo-natal care for several months.
In fiscal year 2004/05, 207 patients received 711 rides through Care-A-Van for Kids. Alameda County citizens accounted for 24 rides, but the number is projected to grow rapidly as East Bay service becomes better known. "We are expecting a substantial increase in the East Bay," says Champion. The key to expansion is having a large pool of drivers to accommodate those in need. The strong association between Stanford and Washington hospitals will allow future expansion of Care-A-Van services to the local facility as well. At this time, the need is for more drivers. Although potential drivers are qualified through an extensive screening process, Champion says her staff can assist applicants with the paperwork.
Kenison comments that the Care-A-Van staff and those he drives are very appreciative of his time and efforts. Some drivers will spend the entire day with Care-A-Van while others only have time for a one-way trip; another driver completes the journey. He adds, "There are kids that need constant treatment and if they take public transportation, the trip can take all day plus they may have a compromised immune system and can be exposed to a potentially harmful environment." Stewart enthusiastically recommends the program saying, "It's a good way to give back. I have been pretty fortunate and it's nice to have the opportunity to help kids and families."