By Brittany Polito
12:05PM / Sunday, December 19, 2021
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A rather new volunteer community car ride service operated by the Berkshire County Retired Senior Volunteer Program has been well received and needs more drivers to support its mission.
Wheels for Wellness has given 468 rides to 176 local individuals since its launch in June. Volunteers have driven more than 13,000 miles combined and have contributed over 1,000 hours of service.
Medical rides are given priority but they can also be provided for other human needs and wellness-related activities.
Currently, the demand exceeds driver availability and RSVP's goal is to fulfill every ride request.
"Each week, it kind of snowballs and the demand is pretty high," Program Director Jeff Roucoulet said.
"Then new people learn about it, we get repeat customers, and we have people who need it multiple times a week, and it snowballs, so the more drivers we have that we get in front of it, the more likely this will continue to be a success."
Roucoulet doesn't want driver fatigue to happen amongst the group of about 20 volunteers, 10 of whom are very active. The goal is to have a diverse pool of help in order to alleviate some of the stress and spread the wealth, he said.
In total there are about 27 volunteers.
To be a driver you must have full COVID-19 vaccinations, a reliable vehicle, a safe driving record, proof of insurance, and to be available for a shift or to be on call. Drivers go through a 75-minute orientation session before providing rides.
There is also mileage reimbursement available for up to $50 a month.
To be a rider, an individual must be able to get in and out of the car independently, book the ride at least two working days in advance, and cancel or reschedule a ride at least two working days in advance.
Priority is given to medical appointments, which include counseling and COVID-19 vaccinations, then access to food or human/social services, and then other activities that promote wellness.
The service is within the county.
Great Barrington resident Rob Michels has been volunteering for Wheels for Wellness since September and has had all great experiences. He sometimes gives rides three days a week.
"Every single person that I've had in the car, without exception, has been nice and appreciative and all that stuff, there hasn't been one unpleasant person," he said.
"I'm glad to help out, what can I say, it's very difficult for people who don't have access to a car and I'm assuming that most people that get into my car are in that situation."
Michels finds his work with Wheels for Wellness gratifying.
"I've been a pretty lucky guy in life, I just feel it was the appropriate thing to try to share my good fortune with people who are not so lucky," he added.
RSVP is a national organization that is funded by the federal AmeriCorps Seniors program and sponsored by the city of Pittsfield. It provides recruitment, training, and placement of persons 55 years of age and over as volunteers and the Berkshire County chapter has a leadership role in addressing the community issues of education, health, environmental, and human service needs.
Community Health Programs is a key funder for Wheels for Wellness, providing a boost of $5,000 to get the program going.
Roucoulet has heard of scarcities in food, transportation, and access to medical care repeatedly through conversations with other organizations. This program expands on the RSVP van that operates within Pittsfield.
"Volunteers are using their own vehicles," he explained. "Curb to curb is what we call it, the driver does not have to get out of the vehicle on any leg of the trip."
Lia Spiliotes, CEO of Community Health Programs, said it is important for the health and well-being of individuals to have access to transportation.
"I think it's just critically important to not view what's required to keep somebody healthy, not just from a medical standpoint, but from social determinants of health, which we're all working on, which is financial insecurity, food insecurity, housing, those types of things that are important to be sure that people are healthy," she explained.
"So it's taking basically stepping back and taking a broader view of what are all the different factors that can affect the health of an individual, not only what you eat, and where you live, to how you're cared for by your health-care provider."
To apply for this service or as a driver, interested parties can call 413-395-0109 or stop in to the Berkshire County RSVP office located in the Berkshire Athenaeum.