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Waushara County volunteer program loses 50% of drivers during pandemic

Driving a Car
Posted at 9:00 AM, Sep 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-16 19:46:28-04

WAUSHARA COUNTY (NBC 26) — A volunteer program in Waushara County that helps veterans, people 60-years-old or older, or people with disabilities has had 50 percent of its volunteers resign during the pandemic.

The program offers rides, mostly to medical appointments.

"I find it very rewarding... you're doing something for the community, and for people in general," said Dellos Gaatz, a volunteer driver in the program.

People might request a ride because they have never driven on their own, or might no longer drive due to "dementia or another illness, maybe they've had a stroke," said Debbie Paavola, the director of Waushara County's Aging Department.

Fewer drivers in the program has meant that not all ride requests can be honored.

"Just recently, I've had a few that I've had to say, 'I'm so sorry, we just can't get you there, we just don't have the people, the volunteers,'" said Mary Mlodzik, the County transportation specialist.

Some, but not all, of the driver resignations were due to concerns about the possibility of COVID-19 exposure, Paavola said.

Waushara County is not alone in the struggle with fewer volunteer drivers.

"...[T]here are substantial transportation challenges for older adults and people with disabilities," Carrie Diamond, of the National Aging & Disability Transportation Center, said in an email.

"Volunteer driver programs are critical to these areas and continue to struggle to attract volunteers..."

The Waushara County volunteer driver program and a separate County minibus program provide about 5,500 annual trips, Paavola said.

With more volunteers, the denied trips in the county could have been avoided, Paavola said. More information on the program is available here.

"I hope there's someone to drive me when I can't drive... and I know that's coming, so that's why I do it, too," said Gaatz, the volunteer driver.

The Waushara County Aging Department can be reached at (920) 787-0403.