Local | Senior Lifestyle | Seniors

Federation transportation service takes seniors from isolation into action

Driver Mark Contreras has worked for HandiCar, Inc. for 11 years. Jeanne Fischer is one of his regular passengers. The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s free transportation service is available for seniors and disabled passengers traveling to Jewish cultural, religious and community activities around Tucson. (Photo: Debe Campbell/AJP)Driver Mark Contreras has worked for HandiCar, Inc. for 11 years. Jeanne Fischer is one of his regular passengers. The Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s free transportation service is available for seniors and disabled passengers traveling to Jewish cultural, religious and community activities around Tucson. (Photo: Debe Campbell/AJP)

For some local Jewish seniors and the disabled, transportation can’t be taken for granted. Without a vehicle, a driver’s license, friends or family to take them places, or the ability to afford a ride service, life can be confining. Isolation can lead to depression and affect general well-being. When local transportation is provided to religious and cultural locations at no cost, it literally changes lives.

Cam Mantz calls Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s senior transportation ride share service a blessing. “I’m able to do more activities than before,” she says, describing her now busy schedule with Friday and Saturday trips to Shabbat services, extra services for holidays such as Purim and Passover, a weekly Torah class and volunteering twice a week at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging. Mantz goes to an adult b’nai mitzvah class, a meditation class at Congregation Bet Shalom, exercise classes at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, and Hebrew lessons. She also attended Congregation Chofetz Chayim’s program on kosher foods at Albertson’s supermarket.  She reaches each of these programs with JFSA’s senior transportation. “Before, I had to take Sun Vans which is expensive. This is more convenient. As long as it’s to a Jewish location, it really gets me around.”

Jeanne Fischer is a regular user of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona's transportation service for seniors and the disabled.
Jeanne Fischer is a regular user of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s transportation service for seniors and the disabled.

The senior transportation service originated from a 2008 senior community needs survey conducted by the JFSA’s Senior Task Force. Transportation was among the top challenges noted by the 300 respondents, which included seniors, the disabled and their advocates.

JFSA Synagogue-Federation Planning and Allocation grants funded the program’s pilot operation for three years as it gained traction for rides to religious services and activities at synagogues, says Terry Perl, the task force’s original chair. When grant funding ended, JFSA took the service into its budget under the Jewish Community Round Table. Beverly Sandock, JFSA’s planning and marketing coordinator, now oversees senior transportation. Contracting with HandiCar, Inc. allowed for expansion of the program’s scope, to include more access and more active involvement in Jewish community life, Perl says. “People began to use the resource for connection with the community.”

Between 2016 and 2018, ridership grew by 68 percent to 3,418 one-way rides covering 6,958 miles. With rides peaking around the High Holidays, more than 28 percent of travelers still head to synagogues and 9 percent to the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Other popular destinations are Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, the JFSA Northwest Division Olson Center for Jewish Life, the Jewish History Museum, University of Arizona Hillel Foundation and other public or private locations where Jewish functions occur across the Tucson area.

Sandock qualifies and registers participants by phone. After that, riders can book their rides directly with the wheelchair-accessible HandiCar. Through year-end, there were 246 qualified senior and disabled riders, with two to three new riders signing on weekly.  Of those, 123 are “active riders,” Sandock says, utilizing ride services from once to hundreds of times a year. Travel requests peak for Friday and Saturday Shabbat services, challah bakes and other major community events. Sandock notes that the service enables passengers to participate in lifecycle events — such as funerals and b’nai mitzvah — that they previously were unable to attend. She hears many stories from participants about how access to travel impacts lives. “HandiCar is a very generous and caring partner,” she adds.

Sandock tells of a contribution that came to the program with a note from a rider’s friend. The donor recounted that he used to take that rider everywhere, and never minded. But he now realizes the independence his friend has gained. “The riders are extremely appreciative,” Sandock says.

The service sells itself by word of mouth among riders, says Sandock. Rabbi Richard Safran said he knew about the service previously, but when he moved to Handmaker two months ago, he told the AJP, “it opened up a whole world for me.” The former community chaplain expressed his thanks for the service, adding that he will be sharing his knowledge about its availability with other Handmaker residents.

“I am the Handi-Car rider in our family,” says David P. Vernon. “I have been using the service for about three years. I sing in the choir at Congregation Kol Simchah, so I use the service about six or seven times per month — almost every Wednesday and first and third Fridays. I depend on the program because I have a limited income and my wife works so much she cannot drive me to choir rehearsals or services. I fervently hope that this service continues to be available for the rest of my life.  I hope they have plenty of good paying customers.”

Due to the program’s dynamic growth, new policies soon will limit a rider’s number of monthly trips. Passengers will always have the option to secure additional rides at a discounted rate. “This will only affect about three of the most frequent riders,” Sandock adds.

Despite limited resources, the service successfully has addressed access to engagement in local Jewish life, Perl says. He attributes the growth to the Federation’s marketing efforts and expansion of access beyond synagogue facilities. “We are meeting a significant need for those with limited mobility. But, there still are a lot more in the community that we are not accessing,” he adds.

He sees the next step as collaborating with areas of the community that directly benefit from their members’ use of the transportation service. “They need to examine how they can help. It would be optimal if others who are benefiting from this resource could find some way to support it. Theoretically, if every synagogue and beneficiary agency that has access and utilization kicks in $1,000 a year, it would allow for a significant increase in  the number of people and riders.”

For more information or to register and qualify as a rider, contact Sandock at 577-9393 or [email protected].