Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

July 5, 2006 > Ride with the Vanners

Ride with the Vanners

by Julie Grabowski

Three retirees, each with a hearing loss, were playing golf one fine March day. The first guy remarked to the second, "Windy isn't it?" "No," the second man replied, "it's Thursday." The third man chimed in, "So am I. Let's have a beer." This is what you get when you ride with the Vanners, a collection of seniors who meet every Tuesday and Thursday for lunch. The group name comes from the vans they ride provided by the Fremont Paratransit program courtesy of Senior Services, a division of Human Services.

Coordinator Bonnie Petrolina arranges monthly calendars and makes calls the morning before a trip with pick-up times. Alongside regular driver Tony Robison, Petrolina gets seniors on the road with a lively flurry of jokes, anecdotes, and updates on absent friends. She'll pass around a telephone number of a sick member; or cards to sign; or maybe hold up a cell phone for a group rendition of Happy Birthday.

The Vanners dine all around Fremont, establishing favorites like Baldie's Cafˇ and the Elephant Bar, rotating through Applebee's, Uncle Chong's, and Classic Diner among others. Petrolina says they appreciate places like Baldie's and El Patio that accommodate a large group, some with tag-a-long wheelchairs and walkers, while offering quick, efficient service with a ready smile. Seniors can also join shopping trips on Wednesdays for a few hours at either Raley's or the Hub.

All members of the group are attuned to each other's needs, ready to open a door, push in a chair, make trips to the cashier, or assist those who have difficulty seeing. The compassion and humor among them creates an enjoyable environment that makes the outings successful. "If people didn't help each other this would be a real bomb of a program," declares Petrolina.

The Vanners was started in 1999 by Petrolina in order to provide trips for those unable to drive. The four people at that first lunch quickly grew to 14 by the end of the first year. Current attendance ranges from 18 to 30, some of the highest numbers coming on days when the lunch spot is announced as a mystery. According to Petrolina, "Coming the first time is the hardest, but if they're social they love it." The Fremont Paratransit program offers seniors access to a community of their peers, as well as available transportation to various destinations. It also provides needed breaks to caregivers.

Jackie Miller has been a regular Vanner since relocating from New Orleans five years ago to be near family. She uses Fremont Paratransit for doctor's appointments and to get her hair done. She has had trouble with other modes of transit in the past; being picked up late and missing appointments. Fremont Paratransit is easy and reliable. She says, "Never had any trouble with Fremont."

Ninety-two year-old Grace Haussner, joins the group every Tuesday for lunch and Wednesday for shopping, but is unable to attend Thursdays because of a class at the adult school. On Fridays, Paratransit takes her to the Senior Center for a morning of volunteer work, a habit of 25 years running and still counting.

Most seniors can't recall how they learned of the Vanners; it has become such an integral part of their lives. It could be they heard it through a case manager, or at the Senior Center, or just word of mouth. To them it's the going and being together that really matters. In last year's Vanners yearbook Gerry Haggerty wrote, "It's nice to realize that when things go wrong, we are not alone. We are just a seat away from a friend."

The Fremont Paratransit program offers door-to-door services and group trips. Door-to-door is available in the Tri-City area Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., then Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Reservations should be placed 24 hours in advance and may be scheduled seven days ahead. All Fremont seniors over the age of 80 are eligible for services. Also, Fremont residents under 80 years of age may ride with the Vanners if they suffer a health condition or disability that prevents the use of public transportation. A trip voucher and $2 cash fare are required for each ride.

Group trips are for six or more people from housing complexes and community organizations that serve seniors or disabled persons. The cost is $1 each way.

For more information on the Vanners, contact Bonnie Petrolina at (510) 574-2038.

To learn more about Fremont Paratransit program or to apply for services, call Monica Gloria at (510) 574-2053, or visit

Information about the Alameda County Paratransit program can be found at

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