Photo by Matt Eich/LUCEO
To serve her community, Cyndi Yakshe signed up to drive people to medical appointments for the Peninsula Agency on Aging (PAA). She stays involved for the people.
"I was looking for a way to give back, but it's not entirely selfless. I get as much out of this as my riders," she said.
See also: Value of volunteers.
Yakshe, 58, of Poquoson, transports people who no longer drive or can't afford a car. She averages one trip a week, usually about 30 miles round trip and from 90 minutes to half a day.
Like other volunteer drivers, Yakshe is not reimbursed for mileage she puts on her car, but the PAA sends her a statement at the end of the year for tax purposes. Volunteer drivers only transport individuals; a PAA van is used for groups and clients in wheelchairs.
She's one of hundreds of volunteers at Virginia's 25 Area Agencies on Aging (AAA). Many AAA officials say they could use double the number of volunteers.
The nonprofits provide meals to homebound people, offer transportation to appointments, host meals at senior centers and help clients sift through insurance and Medicare options.
Can defer nursing home
AAA volunteers worked nearly 610,000 hours last year, equal to about 300 full-time employees.
Although volunteers perform a number of tasks, AAA officials say the most acute need is for drivers, both for transporting people to medical appointments and delivering Meals on Wheels.
"The AAAs provide first-line services for seniors in their communities," said Bill Kallio, AARP Virginia state director.
He said AAA services help people remain in their homes longer.
Kallio noted that when older people move to a nursing home, they may quickly deplete their resources and have to rely on Medicaid, which is financed by state and federal taxes, to pay for the cost.
"The longer we can keep them in the community, the better it is for the individual and the commonwealth," he said.
Joe Golding, 65, of Roanoke County, drives every Wednesday for the Local Office on Aging's Meals on Wheels program. His route usually takes 90 minutes to two hours to complete.
"I know every one of them," he said of the clients who receive the meals. "While I'm there, I do things for them. I carry their garbage [cans] in and out, get their mail — anything that needs doing."
Golding brings his granddaughters when they're out of school. "They enjoy it, and the older people enjoy seeing them and getting a hug."
In addition to delivering meals, Roanoke volunteers provide rides to the grocery, Social Security Administration and social service offices.
Often the volunteer is "the only person the client sees all day," said Gerald Patesel, PAA director of community services. "Our clients and volunteers bond and in many instances the volunteers want to drive that client every time."
Drivers don't have to make a permanent commitment. Some PAA drivers head south for the winter and resume volunteering when they return, Patesel said. Generally, volunteers drive every week, every other week or once a month.
When the call comes, "You can say yes, and you can say no," Yakshe said.
In Fredericksburg, volunteer drivers for the Rappahannock Area Agency on Aging (RAAA) provide rides to medical appointments and take people shopping and to social events.
Most agencies do not ask volunteer drivers to transport people who use wheelchairs; staff-driven vans handle those assignments.
"Transporting people in our vans is very expensive," said Jim Schaefer, RAAA executive director. "With a volunteer driver program, we can get the ambulatory people into private cars and transport more people for less money."
Patesel said, "Any amount of volunteer help would go a long way" in helping to keep older people in their own homes longer. "A day a month would make a difference to somebody."
Yakshe, who drives for the PAA in the Newport News-Hampton area of Virginia, said one of her favorite parts of the experience is the passengers' reminiscences.
Her favorite: A World War II war bride from England coming to America on an ocean liner asked fellow passengers to "knock me up in the morning" so she could see New York City at sunrise — not realizing the British expression for "wake me up" had an entirely different meaning in the United States.
Virginia offers free liability insurance coverage for volunteer drivers for qualified nonprofit groups, such as AAAs. To volunteer with an AAA, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Karen Haywood Queen is a writer living in Williamsburg, Va.