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April 29, 2009 > Riding on to independence

Riding on to independence

By Meredith Eidem

Take away a person's driver's license because he can no longer drive safely, or take away the person's monies to do so, and you have a person who can easily shut down, becoming a prisoner in his own home. There is a need for people with disabilities, seniors, and low-income citizens to continue with their lives, essentially getting unstuck. Outreach can provide that opportunity.

Thirty years ago social services were needed to eradicate poverty. A networking system began with food banks and caseworkers taking meals to needy people in their homes. Then they started to drive seniors and disabled residents of Santa Clara County who could no longer drive to their necessary appointments, especially doctor's and life-sustaining appointments such as chemotherapy and dialysis, and to their work places. Outreach was underway.

Partnering with the county's Paratransit Program, Outreach now makes three to four thousand trips per day or one million trips per year in all 15 cities. It is not just for people with visible disabilities or functional disabilities, but for disabilities we cannot see such as Diabetes and Epilepsy as well.

"I first heard of Outreach in the late 1970's. It was called 'Dial-A-Ride.' It was my only means of transportation. It was a very good thing. Major bus lines shut down at 7 in the evening. It was important so I could travel at night and on the weekends," said Mark Frias, who was a non-driver due to Epilepsy. There is a Senior Transportation Program, which is also an affordable way for seniors to "support their health and welfare."

Low-income parents who are with CalWORKS can participate in the Guaranteed Ride Program, which will enable them to get to work, school, and job training. If their children need rides home from after school activities or to daycare, they can be a part of the Give Kids a Lift! Program.

People with functional disabilities are welcome and their caseworkers can plan the rides for them and travel with them. "I love it because it takes me to where I want to go, like practice for the Special Olympics. My staff calls them ahead of time" said Ed Koborssy.

"I like it because I take it to City College where I have karate class in San Jose," says Tom Freeman. Residents with temporary disabilities such as breaking a leg, are included in Outreach's population of over 17,000. As Outreach CEO, Katie Heatley, says, "Not one size fits all."

One applies to become a client. Don't forget to include elderly people who are frail, whose eyesight is poor especially at night, and those who are legally blind. A seeing-eye dog is welcome.

Friends and family members who may have donated some of their driving time may help now by filling out an application for the potential client. Heatley notes, "Older adults become invisible members of society; it is easy to get isolated. They need to live independently."

There are guaranteed door-to-door rides anywhere within Santa Clara County all the way to Stanford Medical Center, the transfer point to Redi-Wheels, which offers the same opportunities in San Mateo County.

Rides can be arranged for transportation for activities which may start at 5 a.m. all the way until 2 a.m. seven days a week and 365 days a year. "I take it to dances at night," says George Khaill. Rides cost only $3.50 each way and are funded through grants from the city of Campbell, San Jose and Sunnyvale, Santa Clara County, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) Lifeline Transportation Program, the Council on Aging Silicon Valley, and generous support of private donors, just to name a few.

One can think of Outreach as an veritable chauffer taxi service because drivers will come to the client's door in a car, or a van if necessary, assist him with walking, a wheelchair, an electric wheelchair, walker, or a scooter, and drive him directly to the door of the destination, again assisting. There are over 250 drivers who operate a wide range of vehicles including vans that will lift a power chair. Clients can also arrange for a companion to join them.

"Driving is the highest level of independence," states Heatley.

Therefore Outreach provides a way for its clients to continue to contribute to the community. They can go to work, to church, to a grocery store or a mall, visit friends, or to be a volunteer for the cause of their choice. Heatley said "We assist people to have dignity and to live independently."

Paratransit Program Manager of thirteen years, Belinda Zeweldi, says, "the organization is close knit. It's extremely rewarding to be able to assist people." She is also concerned with quality. Therefore she conducts forums throughout the county to promote Outreach and to address any client concerns.

Clients can make their appointments one to fourteen days ahead of time keeping in mind that this is a shared ride program and in the 1990's Outreach was designed like a bus route. They may need to factor in some extra time when requesting a ride or a pick up after the appointment. Logistics, such as determining how long it will take to get to the destination, are easy to learn and the staff is delighted to help.

Zeweldi says Outreach has a fairly young staff whose contact with seniors at first was probably only with their grandparents. Now "they are happy and excited to assist people who are less fortunate and to assist more people to remain independent."

Email or call (408) 436-2865 for more information.

The writer has lived with an invisible disability, Epilepsy, and has not been allowed to drive for five years. Outreach has allowed her freedom.

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