As Pauline Cottingham motored a shopping cart down the grocery store aisle, Dianna Johnston walked next to her, chatting and putting groceries Cottingham asked for in the cart. They looked like old friends shopping together. They weren't. They met a few hours earlier when Johnston picked Cottingham up at her house.
Johnston is a volunteer driver for ITN Southern Delaware, the Independent Transportation Network, a nonprofit in Sussex County set up to provide affordable transportation for senior citizens and people with visual impairments.
The shopping cart is the only thing that Cottingham, 91, drives these days. Several months ago, she made the decision to give up her license. Between her arthritic knees and occasional dizzy spells, she said, "It was a bad idea for me to drive."
It was a difficult decision for Cottingham, who lives in Rehoboth Beach, nowhere near a grocery store, her doctor or the salon where she gets her hair done regularly. It was a relief when she heard about ITN.
"They're all nice. Haven't had a bad one yet," said Cottingham, as she shared stories with Johnston about dogs and her family, as they drove from place to place on a recent Saturday errand run. More than a taxi service, the ITN drivers who pick her up, help her with her coat, carry her groceries and make sure she is safely back in her home.
"It's arm-through-arm, door-through-door dignified transportation," said Nancy Feichtl, the woman who brought ITN to Sussex County.
[caption id="attachment_23283" align="alignright" width="200"]Janis Hanwell is executive director of ITN Southern Delaware[/caption]
The retired assistant superintendent of the Cape Henlopen School District said her motive for starting the program was pretty selfish. After driving her own parents to appointments when they got older, Feichtl wondered who would drive her when the time came. She had no close family to rely on here. In her search for ride sharing programs she came across ITN, a national nonprofit, with the door-to-door model being used in Sussex now.
Through ITN, clients, anyone age 55 or older (or 21 and older with visual impairment) can join for $40 a year individually, $70 for a household. Clients then open an ITN account with a minimum $50 that they use toward rides. No money changes hands in the cars and there is no tipping. Rides cost $2.50 per pickup and $1.25 per mile. Services are available 24 hours a day, but clients must schedule at least a day in advance. The volunteer drivers earn credits they can bank for future rides of their own. Public transit is very sparse in Sussex County.
John Sisson, CEO of Delaware Transit Corp. said the transit corporation supports private companies like ITN for "providing mobility options to fill in the gaps of traditional public transit."
Program administrators are trying to raise scholarship funds to help people who don't have the money for the service, so no one is denied a ride, said Feichtl.
The first ride took off on Dec. 2, 2015. Today the Sussex program has about 60 drivers and 200 rider members, said Janis Hanwell, executive director, who sometimes fills in as a driver. Rides are offered from Bethany to Milford and west to the Georgetown/Millsboro area where people have signed up. The goal is to provide service countywide eventually.
"It's very flexible," said Johnston, 72, a retired lawyer, who banks her credits for "someday." "You get to meet a lot of interesting people."
She talked with one man about his career as an engineer on naval subs, read a series of novels after hearing about them from the author's wife on one trip, and has shared family stories with another. Johnston said she's not overly gregarious, and takes her cues from the people she drives. Some don't want to chat constantly, she said.
ITN volunteer drivers are mostly in the over-50 age range, said Hanwell, for insurance reasons. ITN automatically enrolls its volunteers who qualify into the Volunteer Delaware 50 + program, a program run through the state office of volunteerism that supplies additional liability insurance for mature volunteers in the first state. The state legislature also passed a law that insurance companies couldn't raise a volunteer driver's rates simply because she took on the assignment.
"This doesn't work without community support," said Feichtl, who referred to herself as a "one-woman show," rounding up volunteers and corporate sponsors when the program started. She joked that her friends are afraid to answer the phone when she calls now.
The program is starting to catch on in the business community. Some salons now pay the pickup fees for their clients who use ITN, a national pharmaceutical company will pay for any client going to an eye appointment, and several churches have signed up to pay for rides for parishioners to go to Sunday services.
Feichtl and Hanwell's big push right now is to get people to join before they need the service, to make sure it is available for years to come. Being part of the ITN national program means the Southern Delaware program must be completely self-sufficient within five years of starting. Money raised from the rider fees covers about half of the administrative costs, said Hanwell. Member fees and corporate and business sponsors are needed to make the system work.
For Cottingham, the program offers a little extra freedom and happiness. "I tell all my friends about it."