When Anna Shirreff moved from her home just outside of Stettler to live in Hearthaven Lodge nearly four years ago, the elderly resident knew she didn’t want to abandon what had been in her family for generations. However, accessing the property without being able to drive would be a challenge.
Shirreff turned to the Stettler and District Handibus Society for help, and the organization rose to the occasion. A driver picks her up early on the day she wants to head out to the farm, and picks her up at a set time later in the afternoon.
“I’m not sure what I’d be able to do without it,” Shirreff said of the service. “I’d be very — well, not sad, but it’d be a great inconvenience for my personal welfare to be without it.”
Not only does Shirreff use the service to get back to the family farm, she also uses it to go visit friends, family, and get around the community.
“It’s very good to get out on trips to be with my family, on Christmas and on birthdays,” she explained. “I like to get out for the fresh air, go home to the farm. I might not be able to do as much as I used to, but I can still do something.”
Shirreff’s message was one of but many that came out in support of the Handibus Society and its volunteer drivers. Gale Vantkruis, the owner of Scissors Palace on 49 Street, said many of her clients come in by handibus.
“I can’t say enough good things about one of their drivers, Kirstin Ror,” Vantkruis said. “She walks them from their house, helps them into the bus, brings them here and walks them right in. She’ll even come in to help them back to the bus.”
Volunteers have come and gone over the years, Judy McKnight, the program administrator, said, but some are old die-hards while others, like Ror, just started this year.
Besides the technical requirements, like certain classes of driver licences and a clean driving abstract, volunteers need to have a certain personality type.
“You need to be caring and compassionate, patient and friendly,” McKnight said. “The people you are helping may move slower, can wear out faster, and be frustrated by their limitations.”
The Handibus Society is funded through fares, grants and donations, McKnight noted. Right now, the organization is trying to raise money for what they call a “medical van,” which is actually a van used to transport individuals to medical appointments out of the community. The current van is getting on in both years and kilometres as it makes trips year-round to Red Deer, Calgary, Edmonton and other communities where specialists preside.
“It’s starting to get to the point where maintenance costs are outweighing the benefits of keeping the vehicle on the road,” McKnight noted. The van and handibus are inspected every six months.
Sandra Thompson is the administrative assistant at Hearthaven Lodge. There, she sees first-hand the benefits the service brings to the residents, many of whom would otherwise be lodge-bound. Thompson’s appreciation of the service doesn’t end there, though.
After a terrible fall two years ago, Thompson was left with a broken hip and knee, and ended up living in the lodge itself until she had healed enough to manage stairs. During her recovery, Thompson was unable to drive, yet had multiple regular physiotherapy appointments she had to make.
Despite not being a senior herself, the injury qualified her to use the Handibus service as a disabled individual.
“I was in such a unique position to see how much the Handibus helps people, as well as see how much it helped me,” she said. “It’s a valuable service to the community, and you have no idea how valuable it is until you need it.”
At the end of 2015, the Handibus Society had provided a total of 6,683 bus rides to residents of the community, which are both van and and handibus rides. This number are only the town and county numbers. Out-of-town medical trips last year totaled 111. This number does not include the number of riders who accompany clients as assistants.
The society also has regular pick-ups and drop-offs at the local lodges and Walmart for those wanting to do shopping, though seniors or residents with disabilities can phone in to 403-742-5858 to schedule a pick-up. In-town rates are $5 each way, within the county $16 each way, and out-of-town rates vary depending on distance.
The organization is in need of volunteer drivers, who, despite being volunteers, receive some compensation for their time. While in-town, bus drivers are usually available, at times the organization has had to turn away people looking for transportation out of Stettler.
“Some of our drivers won’t drive in the big cities, since they don’t know them,” McKnight said. “So we’re always looking for drivers who know the cities and who are willing to help out.”
The Society has had its first injection into the new van fund by the way of the Telus Fibre for Good program. With Telus rolling out its new fibre network in Stettler, new customers were asked to pick a local charity which they would like to support.
The Stettler and Society Handibus program was one of the charities that will be receiving a donation from Telus later this spring, in the amount of $1,000.