A white bus pulls up to Christine’s Hair Studio in Blawnox, and a woman in her 70s boards.
A passenger in a yellow, floral shirt gives her a kiss on the cheek and a warm greeting, “How are you, sweetie?”
On the Free Rides for Seniors shuttle, operated by North Hills Community Outreach, the riders are like a family. The 10-passenger bus serves many regulars as it provides free transportation to people aged 60 and older who live in Blawnox, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, Fox Chapel and O’Hara, along or near Freeport Road.
Weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the volunteer-staffed program takes senior citizens to grocery stores, medical appointments, banks and other locations. The bus operates in partnership with St. Margaret Foundation, which funds most of its $60,000 annual operating expenses.
Since May 2005, the shuttle has provided more than 43,000 rides to about 600 riders, who can board the bus at their front doors.
“It alleviates some of the stress on family members,” said program coordinator Kerry Keegan Mulhern. “In this day and age, so many family members work or are outside of the area. You can only ask a neighbor or friend so many times to help you out.”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Ann Bates boarded the bus at Waterworks Mall. The Aspinwall resident frequently uses the shuttle to go shopping.
“It’s so nice because I can make my rounds at the stores,” said Ms. Bates, 85. “My friends who live in Morningside wish they had something like this.”
Free Rides for Seniors is the only free, door-to-door rideshare program in the North Hills. It doesn’t take appointments, so seniors request transportation by calling a ride-along dispatcher when they are ready to leave. The dispatcher usually turns on the phone around 9:30 a.m. and accepts ride requests through 3:30 p.m.
The bus is not wheelchair accessible, but volunteers help passengers with walkers to board.
At times, passengers don’t need to go anywhere in particular. Some seniors ride the bus just to get out of the house and socialize. The camaraderie on the shuttle alleviates loneliness, Ms. Mulhern said, and over the course of weeks and months transporting many of the same people, drivers and dispatchers bond with riders.
“We had one rider who was undergoing radiation for prostate cancer, and we knew every day his appointment was at 2 [p.m.] If he didn’t call for a ride, my volunteers were calling me, asking, ‘Where is he?’” Ms. Mulhern said. “For six weeks, we made sure he went every day, and I had one volunteer who was out of town and called to find out if his blood work came in.
“You can’t help but fall in love with these riders. Their stories are amazing.”
But the number of volunteers is dwindling, and Ms. Mulhern often has to drive the bus herself. Many of the program’s 33 active volunteers are on vacation or on medical leave.
To fill the gap, Ms. Mulhern is seeking new drivers and dispatchers. Drivers must have a Pennsylvania driver’s license and be between ages 25 and 70. Prospective drivers between ages 70 and 75 must obtain a medical release from their doctor.
North Hills Community Outreach and St. Margaret Foundation plan to begin operating in mid-2015 another bus in Millvale, Verona, Oakmont, Etna, Natrona Heights and Tarentum. The Allegheny County Department of Economic Development awarded a $45,000 grant in May for NHCO to purchase the new shuttle.
In addition to conferring its annual Free Rides for Seniors Grant to NHCO in July, St. Margaret Foundation also awarded $9,000 for the second shuttle’s future operating expenses.
Lighthouse Pointe Village at Chapel Harbor, a UPMC independent living community, donates office and parking space to the program.
For more information about Free Rides for Seniors: http://nhco.org/get-help/for-seniors/free-rides-for-seniors/.
Marisa Iati: email@example.com, 412-263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.