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The gift of mobility for West Valley seniors

If anyone had told me early on that our Reach Your Destination Easily (RYDE) program was going to be such a big success we’d have to hustle for volunteer drivers, I’d have said, “I look forward to that day.”

Well, that day is here. I’m proud to have championed RYDE’s launch, which is on track to provide more than 10,500 rides this fiscal year to folks age 65 and older in the West Valley and South County.

RYDE’s numbers tell quite a story. More than half of the nearly 800 enrollees live with a disability or mobility aid like a cane or walker, one-fifth are veterans, and 80% qualify as low income. The average client’s age is 82. The top three destinations: senior centers, medical appointments, and shopping.

RYDE started six years ago as a small pilot project in Saratoga using taxis. The response was so positive that the folks who cooked up the six-week trial — Saratoga city officials and Saratoga Area Senior Coordinating Council (SASCC) executive director Tylor Taylor — reached out to me and asked if Santa Clara County could help keep the program going.

We could and did, in large part by building a coalition with four other West Valley cities and a second social services agency, West Valley Community Services.  Two years ago, we secured Valley Transportation Authority Measure B grants for innovative transit models, which allowed RYDE to further expand into high-need areas in San Jose and Morgan Hill.

One of RYDE’s best features is its simplicity. No bus schedules to negotiate, no ride sharing apps or surge time pricing to figure out. Just a trustworthy lift to run an errand, see the doctor, or get out to socialize — for a modest fee, based on need. “Modest” isn’t a euphemism: the average trip distance is less than four miles and costs riders under a dollar.

Of course, four miles can be insurmountable when you don’t have a car, or have health challenges. In its early days, RYDE helped more than a few folks who hadn’t been out of the house for more than a year.

“That’s a disaster,” says SASCC’s Taylor. “Home becomes a prison. You can’t sustain yourself, your outlook declines. We want people to live their lives as though they have their own car.”

Taylor hopes to see RYDE expand throughout the County in the next five years. To make that happen — and to keep pace with new clients signing up every month — we need more drivers.

Volunteers don’t have to commit many hours, pay for gas, or even use their own car to make a difference. It’s easy. After a short training course and background check, RYDE’s program coordinators do all the scheduling, connecting drivers with clients.

Saratoga resident Kirch DeMartini, who has been driving clients several times a month ever since the program got off the ground, is RYDE’s longest serving volunteer. “I thoroughly enjoy it. I meet all kinds of people,” he says.

At age 82, retired from Los Gatos High School after 40 years as a teacher, counselor, and administrator in the South Bay, DeMartini is happy he’s in a position to help other seniors be more actively engaged and independent.

“We’re a car-oriented culture; if you don’t have a car or someone to drive you, you’re really up a creek. Not everybody can afford to take cabs or Uber,” he says. “I’m happy to discuss the pros and cons with anyone considering volunteering. There are no cons. There’s a real need in the community, so if you can do it, do it.”

Thank you, Kirch. I’m gratified that RYDE has really blossomed. In order to keep that momentum rolling, if you too can give the gift of mobility, RYDE seniors need you. So think about it, please.

For more about RYDE in Saratoga, Los Gatos, and Monte Sereno visit SASCC's website or volunteer to drive. For RYDE in Campbell and Cupertino visit West Valley Community Services' website; scroll down for the volunteer driver application link.

Joe Simitian
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

This article was originally published in Los Gatos Living and Saratoga Spotlight in July 2023.

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