Community transport drivers keep people connected during pandemic

The services that make society tick have come under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, and that includes those operated by volunteers.

Changing needs, the absence of some established workers and the restrictions to stop the spread of the virus have meant major changes for many organisations. But the community transport scheme run by Stokesley and District Community Care Association has not only coped with those challenges, it is now expecting a bright future as, hopefully, life moves back towards normality.

The service, which operated both a car scheme for volunteers to transport residents to appointments and two minibuses for bigger jobs, has roots going back to the 1980s when churches in the district operated a lunch club and some members gave other people lifts to the meals.

They outgrew those arrangements and the formal scheme was introduced, adding two accessible minibuses along the way, as well as soaking up responsibility for a Richmondshire car scheme.

Its smooth operations, providing access to affordable transport for medical appointments to shopping trips and days out, were disrupted by the coronavirus lockdowns and the need to isolate. Some volunteer drivers were aged over 70 and withdrew on health grounds, some trips had to stop and new demands emerged.

As it became clear people needed shopping deliveries and prescription collections, some drivers turned their attention to those duties and others came along to swell the ranks.

CCA manager Phil Henderson explained: “We had a number of people back from university, others who were furloughed and some who just wanted to help. Most are still with us and we are hoping to keep them, post-pandemic.”

Volunteer driver Harry Trotter took up the role after retiring and more than 11 years later is still involved: “I enjoy it, that’s the reason I do it,” he said.

“Pre-Covid, I tended to do a day every Friday to drive the bus around the villages to bring people into Stokesley for the market, shopping trips. There were elderly people who would have never got there without this type of transport,” he said.

The pandemic brought those services to a halt, but Harry has continued to drive the bus, taking residents for medical appointments on an individual basis, with the size of the vehicle allowing for easy social distancing.

He is looking forward to returning to more familiar duties and said: “I miss the people. Some of them don’t see anyone and that Friday trip was their one day of socialising. People and communities are at the very heart of our organisation.”

Hutton Rudby resident Wendy Bonham has made use of the service and said: “They fill a gap in my life. At the moment I have no car, so if I have an appointment, how else would I get there? It makes life a lot easier. It is just lovely to be able to sit back and think at least these things are organised.”

Outings like a trip to the shops or to collect a fish and chip lunch suddenly became impossible during lockdown, particularly for the sections of society that were told to isolate for health reasons.

But in Settle, those journeys have been quietly and effectively continuing – albeit carried out by volunteers while those who have to stay at home have had their needs met by others.

Settle’s Age UK North Craven charity has been running an effective car-based community transport scheme for many years, with volunteer drivers providing a personal service to escort residents who need help on journeys like hospital appointments.

The pandemic brought fresh challenges and that service has evolved to meet the changing needs of the communities it serves.

So while the personal transport element of the service remains available, including help to get people to Covid-19 vaccination centres, innovations have helped to ensure those needing help have had the assistance to keep their lives as comfortable as possible – down to the tiniest of details.

A fish and chip service was established with Settle’s The Fisherman’s when it became apparent there would be demand from residents for a traditional hot meal delivered to their door, with different drivers taking on runs in their own locality to ensure orders are delivered while the food remains piping hot and enjoyable.

A ‘crafting’ service has also been introduced to tackle boredom among those who would otherwise remain at home with few opportunities for entertainment except the television.

Craft boxes have been created, with a range of goods to provide entertainment and mental stimulation, including wool for knitting, jigsaws and puzzle books, and are delivered to those who want them.

The deliveries allow for much-appreciated human contact, with volunteers able to have a socially distanced chat as they make deliveries.

Sometimes that allows for extra help, such as posting birthday cards, which may be relatively insignificant jobs in a society struggling with Covid-19, but are important to those involved.

Volunteer Ann Bott has been involved as a driver since 2007 and has found the work personally satisfying in addition to knowing it provides a helping hand to those in need. She responds to calls from the Age UK’s office, which until last year had been to take people to appointments. “People are so grateful,” she said.

That service has remained through the pandemic, though with safety measures including no front seat passengers, mask wearing and open windows where possible now part of the routine.

“I was asked if I would be available on Fridays to deliver fish and chips as a shop in Settle had started it off. It has been very popular and we deliver them as quickly as we can,” she said.

Insulated storage boxes help, but the need for swift delivery means there is little time to stop and chat, which is a feature of the craft box deliveries, where time is less pressing.

That also allows Ann to check whether anything else is needed: “Sometimes they will ask if you can post something for them. If you can do that for them, it is brilliant, it means so much to them.”

Giggleswick resident Elsie Butler had not needed to use the Age Concern car scheme before coronavirus struck, but she has been making use of both their fish and chip deliveries and craft boxes.

The 90-year-old is a committed knitter, producing garments for her nine great grandchildren among others, and is grateful for the wool in the crafting boxes.

She described both services as “absolutely wonderful”.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Elsie has been known to change the time of an appointment to avoid missing out on Friday fish and chips.

“Fish chips and mushy peas, for £5, brought right to your doorstep and they are red hot. What is there to complain about?” she said.

Find more information about community transport schemes in North Yorkshire.