Agency that shuttles seniors, disabled wins recognition

January 04, 1993|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff Writer

"Buckle-up everybody," shouts Gloria Washington as she closes the doors on the minibus.

Even before she drives away from the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia, the seven senior citizens are chattering, joking and singing. And it doesn't stop until the last passenger is safely dropped off at his or her home.

It's a fun ride every day for these seniors, thanks to Ms. Washington, a driver with the Urban Rural Transportation Alliance (URTA). The alliance, a private, nonprofit agency in Columbia, provides rides for the elderly, the disabled and low-income families.

Without URTA, hundreds of county residents who have no means of transportation couldn't get to jobs, doctors appointments or activities at the Florence Bain Senior Center.

"Had it not been for URTA I don't know what I would do," said Mable Gowie, who relies on the service for rides to Florence Bain thrice a week and for regular visits to her doctors.

Willis Crawford, who has muscular dystrophy, counts on URTA to pick him up every morning at his Columbia apartment, take him to his job at Bendix Field Engineering Corp. and pick him up after work.

"It's a big help," said Mr. Crawford, 38, of URTA's services.

He said he can't afford to take cabs to his job as a draftsman and has found that public transportation can be a "hit-or-miss" experience.

"The wheelchair lifts might not be working, and the driver might not know how to put you into place," Mr. Crawford said.

URTA was recognized for its services in November when the agency was named the outstanding para-transit system for 1992 by the Transportation Association of Maryland. Para-transit systems serve selected populations on fixed routes.

On top of that honor, the association chose one of URTA's drivers, Yneatha Plummer, as the para-transit driver of the year.

The 15-year-old agency was recognized for its role in serving a mixture of populations and for its improvement in on-time performance. Carl L. Gaites, URTA's director of operations, said the award was a "morale builder" for the staff, especially the 21 drivers who make up the core of URTA's operation.

The agency's primary funding is a $576,000 county grant, and passengers, excluding low-income customers, pay a dollar per ride.

Since July, URTA drivers have made 37,785 trips, nearly a 10 percent increase over last year.

The drivers, who provide about 500 rides daily, are trained in CPR and first aid, and must complete URTA training sessions each year.

They all take pride in the agency's recent awards.

"When you're recognized in that respect, you know all the hard work has been worth it," said driver Roger Sirk.

"I was on cloud nine," said Gloria Washington, a URTA driver for 3 1/2 years.

Like other URTA drivers, she provides much more than a means of transportation to her passengers.

"These are my mothers and fathers; they try to tell me what to do," she said. "And I'm a Dear Abby. When they talk to me they can get it all off their chest."

Ms. Washington has listened to her passengers' life stories, heard about difficulties when they moved in with their children and smiled at their stories about grandchildren.

"Gloria, guess what?" one passenger shouts. "The baby walked on Christmas Day."

"Aside from being an excellent driver, she has the utmost compassion for people," passenger David Feldstein said of Ms. Washington. Mr. Feldstein, 77, rides URTA five days a week to the Florence Bain Center and to an area hospital where he volunteers.

Back at URTA's office on Rumsey Road, dispatchers keep everything running on time.

Dispatcher Robert Brooks takes requests for rides, coordinates the most efficient routes and generally acts as a trouble-shooter.

"It can get rather hectic," he said. "If we didn't have a lot of reliable drivers, this place couldn't operate."

Most of the drivers say that their job with URTA is the best they've ever had.

"You take a lot for granted until you work here," said driver Joanne Fritz.

Mr. Sirk, who was a commercial driver for 16 years, takes cerebral palsy patients to an adult day-care center in Arbutus. Most of the passengers use wheelchairs and can't communicate very well, but it's his favorite route.

Every day he looks forward to seeing a passenger named Patty.

"Patty always reaches out for a hug and grabs my hair when I'm putting her wheelchair in," he said.

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