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Volunteers step up to help seniors, disabled get to doctors

Melissa Abbott is 47, a wife and mother, a graduate school student, and she’s blind and permanently disabled.

Five years ago, a tumor robbed her of much of her eyesight and left her “chronically dizzy.” The balance problems have resulted in falls, causing painful injuries as well as concussions.

The Strafford resident said she is in a doctor’s office at least three times a week — sometimes in Somersworth, sometimes in Portsmouth, and sometimes in Concord. Getting to these appointments meant her self-employed husband would lose out on business or her daughter, who is a teacher, would need to take time out of work.

 But Abbott said she is now “on the road to recovery” with help she’s received from Ready Rides, a volunteer network of drivers that takes people to and from their medical appointments at no charge. It’s one of several volunteer transportation programs that have popped up around the state to help the elderly and disabled in rural areas get rides to the medical care they need.

“They just to do it give back to the community, but they hope it’s there when they need it,” said Ready Rides coordinator Meri Schmalz, adding: “They are angels.”

The drivers receive a mileage reimbursement and gratitude in return.

Lionel “Dag” Saunders of Northwood was at a craft fair in 2016 when he met Schmalz and signed on to be a volunteer driver. He’s made over 200 drives, taking people to appointments as far away as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon — 87 miles each way from Northwood.

“There’s this one lady who grabs my hand and kisses it,” the 79-year-old said. “It makes you feel good and you’re doing good for the community.”

The need

Since Ready Rides started service in 2013, the number of rides has climbed from 115 to more than 2,400 rides, clocking in at 32,000 miles in 2016. In 2017, the group is at almost 45,000 miles driven by 38 drivers for 275 riders. 

It’s also expanded its base to serve nine towns — Barrington, Durham, Nottingham, Newfields, Lee, Newmarket, Northwood, Madbury and Strafford. Each town provides some funding, Schmalz said.

“New Hampshire is so rural,” Schmalz said. It’s so beautiful, but there’s no transportation.”

A 2005 study of New Hampshire views on public transportation found that 62,000 residents missed a medical appointment because they had no ride, with 11,000 of this group reporting missing four or more appointments in one year’s time. While the survey is 12 years old, the percentage of those 65 and older has grown from 12 percent of the state’s population to 16 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2025, that demographic is expected to climb to 25 percent of the state’s population.

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