A new program offering free rides for older people in Belgrade, Fayette, Mount Vernon, Rome and Vienna is moving ahead and seeking a part-time coordinator as well volunteer drivers.

The nonprofit Mount Vernon Community Partnership Corp. will serve as the umbrella organization for the new Neighbors Driving Neighbors program, which is expected to get underway this summer.

“We will transport from their home and drive them to a place that they need to go at no cost,” said Sandy Wright, who is with the group. “They want to be able to do the things they used to do when they drove.”

She said the ride program first obtained a $6,500 planning grant, which supported the services of a consultant was well as a series of forums and surveys to determine the need.

“This is a very rare thing in the state of Maine,” Wright said.

The rides-for-seniors program will be funded through another grant and structured along the lines of the Hancock County-based Friends in Action program. That program offers free transportation as well as a number of other services.

Jo Cooper, executive director of Friends in Action, said the ride program has proved successful in providing a service that otherwise would be unavailable.

“We actually started in 2003,” Cooper said. “It was really small to begin with.”

Now it has a roster of 175 drivers, some seasonal, some with limits on where they are willing to drive.

On Thursday, for instance, the group had 28 rides scheduled, most of them round-trips to such places as hair salons, grocery stores and medical offices.

“Our volunteers are basically doing what any neighbor could do,” she said.

She said the services aid “older adults,” which she defined as roughly 50 and older. “We look at the individual situation to see that we’re able to help.” She also said the group has to have the volunteer resources to provide the service.

There are few rules for riders: “They need to be able to transfer in and out of a vehicle with minimal arm assistance. That’s our No. 1 criteria, as well as whether it’s safe and appropriate for everyone,” Cooper said.

Cooper has been a volunteer driver numerous times. “It’s one of the most enjoyable volunteer interactions there can be. You get to know somebody, it’s a needed task, people are very grateful, and you get to know the community.”

She’s also used the service. “I had my knees replaced, and I had to get rides,” she said.

Cooper is a strong advocate for the program, saying, “Communities around Maine, especially as they’re aging, need to look at creative answers to the transportation problem.”

For the five towns in northern Kennebec County, volunteer drivers will be screened and trained with the assistance of Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, Wright said.

Also, drivers can be reimbursed for mileage if they ask.

“The experience that our consultants have is that most drivers do it because they’re nice people,” Wright said. “We will track the mileage. If any driver needs to be reimbursed, they will be reimbursed.”

Wright said the program will do fundraising, seek grants and apply for a minimal amount of support from the towns themselves.

Prospective riders would meet first with the coordinator so the coordinator understands the rider’s needs and the rider understands how the program works, Wright said.

Mary Bushie, 84, saw information about the program and called Wright several weeks ago, saying, “I need rides.”

Bushie had hoped to use the service from her Fayette home, but in the intervening weeks she moved into an assisted-living center in Greene.

“I ran out of time and health,” she said. “I waited for years for that. There’s nothing in Fayette. I had a girlfriend who took me around everywhere she needed to go, but then she couldn’t.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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