By Garrett Simmons
When Family and Community Support Services canvasses the public to ask what type of services seniors require, one request always rises to the top.
“Transportation is the number one barrier for our seniors,” said Kaitlynn Weaver, Outreach Services Supervisor for FCSS. “A lot of our clients are going to the city to access appointments, to get groceries, for entertainment or seeing family and friends.”
The problem is, of course, many older southern Albertans either do not have the ability to drive themselves or may lack the financial resources to make frequent trips.
That’s where Drive Happiness comes in. An organization based out of Edmonton, but supporting seniors all over the province, including Lethbridge, Drive Happiness connects volunteer drivers with seniors, to empower them to live more independently.
“It can be very isolating when seniors lose their license,” said Evelyn Mansell, Drive Happiness program manager, who explained how the initiative got off the ground. “It really stemmed from a group of local individuals who wanted to help and do good in their community.”
Operating in 34 Alberta communities, Drive Happiness assists those ages 55 and up, and provides not only transportation but also a means for seniors to socialize and connect with their communities.
“We’re able to provide these services through a network of volunteers. That’s what keeps the costs so low for individuals and keeps the program accessible,” said Mansell, who added drivers are not paid for their time, but they are reimbursed for their mileage.
A small fee is charged for the program, which helps to pay for gas. That includes $10 a ticket for a short trip, good for 90 minutes or up to 40 kilometers.
Volunteers often go the extra mile to help support the seniors accessing the program.
“We provide a door-through-door transportation service, so these drivers go above and beyond,” said Mansell, who added drivers will often help with canes or walkers, assist with groceries and even walk clients into the building at their destination to ensure they get where they need to be.
The Lethbridge Senior Citizens Organization (LSCO) helps operate Drive Happiness in Lethbridge but for neighbouring rural communities, Mansell said it became clear an organization like FCSS was required to help expand the program.
“FCSS is a great place for people to go when they’re looking for resources,” said Mansell. “Having them involved in the program and be able to refer people, it’s more beneficial and gives us that credibility and adds that level of trust.”
Weaver added FCSS is piloting the program in Coaldale and Coalhurst.
“We picked those communities because there are already seniors accessing the program through the LSCO, so we thought that would be a clear partnership to find volunteers to help some of the drivers who live in Lethbridge that are making multiple trips.”
FCSS is tapping into its volunteer base in the two communities for drivers, while also seeking seniors who may need assistance.
“We thought it was a natural fit to connect with Drive Happiness and also bring in LSCO, because they are already running the program,” said Weaver, who added the partnership has great potential. “It would be invaluable to have this. The biggest difficulty is finding the volunteers to drive, but I think rural communities are really self-sufficient. They’re very community minded, and I think we will be able to find a couple of folks to really champion the project.”
FCSS is also aiming to drum up financial support for Drive Happiness to cover the fee to seniors.
“What we are hoping to do is to seek private companies or volunteer groups to help subsidize the cost, because even $10 can be a challenge for some seniors,” said Weaver.
LSCO began its partnership with Drive Happiness in 2020 and assists in attracting volunteers and helping them through the orientation process. The organization also keeps a live record of usage for the program.
“That’s where we identified a large portion of requests were coming from rural communities,” said Heather Bursaw, LSCO social worker and case manager, who added the steady stream of Lethbridge volunteers heading outside city limits to pick up passengers led to the partnership with FCSS. “If there is that capacity within their own communities for volunteers to join, that frees up other volunteers in Lethbridge to give Lethbridge rides.”
Volunteers can apply through the LSCO to provide a drivers’ abstract, police record check and a vulnerable sector search. After an orientation process, the volunteer drivers are ready to go.
“This is just a very concrete way of providing a service for people and also, there is that socialization aspect,” said Shiloh Sabas, LSCO volunteer co-ordinator. “It’s very special the relationships, the connections and the bonds the volunteers and the riders make.”
Since 2020, LSCO has helped facilitate 2,000 one-way rides through Drive Happiness, with the help of over 20 volunteer drivers. Sabas would like to add five volunteers in Coaldale and another three in Coalhurst, along with a few more drivers in the city, to ensure the service is as reliable as possible.
“The more the merrier – even if you are only driving once a week or twice a month,” she said. “It’s a neat volunteer opportunity where you only accept the rides you can. It’s quite flexible.”
Those interested in accessing the Drive Happiness Service, or those looking to volunteer, can contact LSCO at 403-320-2222 or FCSS at 403-795-4627.
More information on Drive Happiness can be found at www.drivehappiness.ca.