A heart doctor took John Gordon’s keys away.
The 69-year-old South Hill resident heard this past November he couldn’t drive because of a medical condition. His relatives who live in outlying areas gave him occasional rides, but Gordon struggled to find someone to take him to regular doctor visits.
“It was devastating,” Gordon said. “It put me in quite a conundrum.”
Then his family doctor told him about Care Cars, a program under Elder Services that since 1984 has used volunteer drivers to transport Spokane County’s at-risk seniors, and disabled and isolated residents to medical appointments.
“It was a saving grace to have Care Cars come to my aid,” Gordon said. “There are many doctor appointments. I call the Care Cars people, and they just focus on my needs and quietly get the job done. I’ve never missed a ride from them, not one.”
Last week, Gordon hitched along with someone who’s used to patrolling city streets. His driver, Tony Giannetto, started volunteering with Care Cars in September after retiring April 2016 from a 36-year career with the Spokane Police Department.
In his spare time, the former sergeant now puts Care Cars passengers in his private vehicle. He’ll pick them up at their doorstep, take them to a medical appointment or treatment, and return them to their homes.
Sometimes, he’ll take them by a pharmacy on the way back.
“It gives me something constructive to do that helps other people,” Giannetto said. “I know the city so well, I can get them to their appointments and back safely.
“These are usually people who used to be able to drive, but because of medical reasons or a treatment, they can’t,” he added. “There are other services out there, like paratransit, but some people fall in the cracks and this program fills in the cracks.”
Elder Services, a division of the nonprofit Frontier Behavioral Health, has issued a call this winter to attract more volunteer drivers because of high demand, said Patricia Robinson, the program’s volunteer specialist.
“We don’t have enough volunteers to meet the demand of our ridership,” Robinson said.
“Right now, we can only (serve) people once a week, so if someone calls in and says, ‘I have two medical appointments a week,’ the maximum we can do is one appointment. Sometimes, our schedule is full and we have to turn people away who call and want to be qualified for service.”
In the more than 30 years since the program’s launch, volunteer drivers have logged over 125,000 trips and more than 1.5 million miles. Care Cars has about 35 volunteer drivers serving roughly 300 people annually.
The program also promotes independence and quality of life, Robinson said.
“The more volunteers we have, the more people we can serve,” she said. “If I had 100 people coming to me next week to volunteer, I wouldn’t turn anyone away.”
To be a Care Cars volunteer driver, people must age 18 or older, have a valid driver’s license, a reliable vehicle, and auto insurance. Volunteers are screened and receive orientation training in communication, community resources, aging and disability issues.
A criminal background check is also required. The service didn’t skip that screening even for Giannetto.
“They do that for all volunteers, it doesn’t matter who you are and where you came from,” Giannetto said. “They needed my driving record too, and you can’t have tickets or crashes. I passed both of those somehow.”
He said Care Cars remains flexible when scheduling him as a volunteer, and he enjoys visiting with his passengers.
“I’m retired, but I can let them know what days I’m available,” he said. “I have grandchildren on the other side of the state, and you can usually find me skiing this time of year, but they work around my schedule.”
Care Cars volunteers take passengers between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Drivers are reimbursed for gas mileage.
Program beneficiaries must be Spokane County residents and be low-income, age 55 or older for seniors, or age 18 or older if disabled, and have no other means of transportation.
For Gordon, he hopes the heart doctor will give a green light soon for him to return to driving. In the meantime, he also appreciates the company of Care Cars volunteers.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had the same volunteer on two occasions,” he said. “They’re just amazing retired people, and they all have a story to tell while we’re driving. We never have the radio on.”
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