How Neighbor Ride builds bonds between volunteer drivers and passengers

  • Columbia senior Mildred Jones, left, puts on her seat belt as Neighbor Ride volunteer driver Sue Sternheimer takes her to Sunday service at Columbia Community Church. Jones has used Neighbor Ride since 2005 to attend weekly services. Without family nearby, Jones says she values her talks with...
Columbia senior Mildred Jones, left, puts on her seat belt as… (Nate Pesce / For the Baltimore…)
September 02, 2014|Allison Eatough | For The Baltimore Sun

Helen Martinaitis patiently sits in the passenger seat of Jim Madachy’s car as he drives away from her Columbia apartment complex.

Martinaitis is on her way to an Ellicott City assisted-living center, where her husband of 63 years lives, battling dementia.

“Do you have a preferred way to go?” Madachy asks Martinaitis.

“No, you’re driving,” Martinaitis says with a laugh.

“Where’d you live before?” Madachy asks.

“Connecticut,” she says. “And I miss it.”

Martinaitis and her husband moved to Columbia about a year and a half ago to be closer to their two sons, who live in Columbia and Ellicott City.

In Connecticut, Martinaitis’ husband did most of the driving. Now, the 85-year-old lives on her own, relying on Madachy and his fellow volunteer drivers at Neighbor Ride, a Howard County-based transportation service, to visit her husband three times a week and attend doctor and physical therapy appointments.

Neighbor Ride drivers are her “lifeline,” she says.“They’re all so friendly, and they try to be so helpful. I tell my friends in Connecticut about it all the time. Sometimes I stop and think, ‘What would I do without them?’ ”

Throughout the past 10 years, Neighbor Ride has provided transportation for seniors who cannot drive or have limited driving ability. Volunteers make about 1,300 trips a month, driving seniors to hair salons, grocery stores, senior centers, doctors’ offices, post offices, church services and even other volunteer organizations.

Supporters say the program is successful because of Howard County’s growing senior population and the ease of volunteering.

But it’s the bonds formed between drivers and passengers that make the program thrive, says Colleen Konstanzer, Neighbor Ride’s community outreach coordinator.

“Every time you pick somebody up, it’s like making a new friend,” she says.

Meeting the need

A 2001 Howard County Office on Aging study projected Howard County’s senior population would double by 2020. Seniors who participated in the study cited lack of transportation as a main concern.

Following the study, a group of county seniors, human services professionals, transportation providers, government officials and community members worked together to find a solution. That solution was Neighbor Ride, which launched Nov. 17, 2004.

State Sen. James Robey, who was Howard County executive at the time, drove the first passengers.

“It was a husband and wife,” he says, recalling the day. “A nice couple. They were going to an Office on Aging Thanksgiving event.”

When they got into Robey’s car, the couple asked, “Do you know how to get there?”

Robey laughed, he says, assuring them he knew his way around the county.

Here’s how it works: To use the service, passengers must be county residents, at least 60 years old and able to get in and out of a car independently. Once registered, passengers contact Neighbor Ride by phone or through the website at least three days before their requested trip, detailing when and where they need to go and for how long.

Neighbor Ride is funded by grants, donors and passenger fees. Passengers prepay for their rides, with fees ranging from $5 for round-trips under four miles to $35 for round-trips up to 70 miles. Fees are per ride, not per person, and passengers can take up to 12 rides per month. 

Twice a day, ride coordinators send email alerts to more than 340 volunteer drivers — men and women who are at least 21 years old, have attended Neighbor Ride’s orientation and passed criminal background, driving record and personal reference checks. Drivers then accept trips based on their availability.

Neighbor Ride staff members call passengers to tell them when a match is made. The night before each trip, drivers also call passengers to introduce themselves and confirm ride details, Konstanzer says.

“Then it’s just a matter of them enjoying each other’s company,” she says.

And enjoy each other’s company they do. 

Making connections

Whether the ride is five minutes or 30 minutes, many Neighbor Ride drivers and passengers begin friendships after just one trip.

“Most of the people are just as nice as they can be,” says Madachy, who has driven for Neighbor Ride since its inception. “And most of them really like to talk.”

Like Mildred Jones, who has used Neighbor Ride since 2005 to attend weekly services at Columbia Community Church. Without family nearby, Jones says she values her talks with Neighbor Ride drivers, both repeat and new, about everything from Howard County events to the aches and pains of aging.

“Every driver I get, even if it’s a first-time driver, we have great conversations,” Jones says. “It’s not like a cab, where you get in and sit until you get to your destination.”

Drivers appreciate the conversation and companionship, as well.

Many of the passengers are “wise beyond their years,” says Karen Gentle, a Columbia resident who began driving for Neighbor Ride in March to honor her father, a former passenger.

One of her regular passengers frequently gives her “secrets of life,” she says.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s always small stuff,” Gentle recalls her saying. “And you’ll always be happy if you live near your grandchildren.”

Last year, Neighbor Ride met more than 98 percent of its ride requests. Its success in meeting transportation needs, as well as keeping residents engaged in the community, should be applauded, says Dayna Brown, administrator of the Howard County Office in Aging.

“For county residents who use it, Neighbor Ride is more than just a ride to your doctor or one of our senior centers,” she says. “It is an additional support in the continuum of care that this county has worked hard to build and maintain to keep older adults aging in [their] community.”

Fifteen minutes and several discussions later (about wedding photos, the heart-wrenching toll of dementia and the six hip replacements between them) Madachy and Martinaitis arrive at her husband’s assisted-living center.

“I’ll pick you up at 2:30 today,” Madachy says, as Martinaitis exits the car.

She turns toward him with a smile and says, “Thank you.”  

For more information about Neighbor Ride, visit or call 410-884-RIDE.


More ways to get around

Along with Neighbor Ride, Howard County seniors have several transportation options, including:

HT Ride

This shared transportation service provides rides to medical appointments, senior centers, social services, college and employment for Howard County residents older than 60 and adults with disabilities. Service is provided to and from locations in Howard County, with limited service available to medical centers in Baltimore. Service hours are Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Passengers must apply to use the service. Fares: $2.50 each way. 800-270-9553

Columbia Association Senior Events Shuttle

This free curb-to-curb shuttle takes groups of four or more adults, ages 60 and older, to local cultural events and locations, including Toby’s Dinner Theatre, Columbia Art Center, Howard Community College and all county senior centers. The shuttle runs after 4:30 p.m. on evenings and weekends. or 410-715-3087


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