WATERVILLE — John Bryant knows he’ll never get rich as a volunteer driver for Kennebec Valley Community Action Program, but it helps pay bills, and the reward he reaps from helping people is more than enough compensation.

“It’s very enjoyable,” Bryant, 65, said as he drove Thursday morning. “It makes you feel good. People are very appreciative. Some of them can’t thank you enough for picking them up and taking them to an appointment.”

Bryant, of Canaan, is one of about 95 volunteer KVCAP drivers who take people of all ages — many of whom are elderly, poor, suffering from an illness or special needs, or are disabled — to dialysis, doctor and other medical-related appointments, as well as to social service organizations and other places throughout central Maine. He doesn’t get paid a salary or hourly wage, but the mileage reimbursement he receives by using his own car helps pay for vehicle maintenance and other needs.

KVCAP is on a mission to recruit more drivers, as they are needed because of the demand for rides, and many drivers who are older head for Florida in the winter. The number of drivers over the last several years has fluctuated from being as high as 130 to as low as 70.

Officials said more volunteers like Bryant are desperately needed, with more than 30 still needed to meet demand.

“We’re looking to get up to 130 drivers. That will make everybody more comfortable,” said Sandy Burton, KVCAP’s volunteer systems coordinator.

Burton met Thursday with Steve Soule, KVCAP’s new volunteer driver recruiter; Delta Chase, director of transportation operations; and Jim Wood, transportation development director, in their Water Street offices to discuss the need for volunteer drivers. Such drivers use their own vehicles and must pass a background check in order to volunteer.

“These people do this job because they have big hearts,” Soule said of drivers.

Chase concurred. “Our staff are all here for a bigger purpose than earning a living,” she said.

REWARDING DRIVES

Volunteer drivers such as Bryant basically make their own schedules and decide how many hours they want to work.

Some are retired. Some work full time in their regular jobs and drive for KVCAP during their time off. Others, such as Bryant, drive full time. They range in age from 21 to 80. Last year, they took 124,391 trips to drive people 3.3 million miles, said Wood, who has worked for 43 years at KVCAP and built the volunteer program in 1987. It is funded by MaineCare, the state Department of Health and Human Services, agencies such as United Way, and grants.

A private nonprofit organization with 280 employees and an annual budget of $22.8 million, KVCAP helps people in Kennebec, Somerset, Lincoln, and Sagadahoc counties with early childhood education, employment, energy needs, housing and social services. Its headquarters is in Waterville and it has offices in Augusta, Skowhegan, Wiscasset and several outreach locations. KVCAP has worked since 1965 to help eliminate poverty and build stronger communities. It has helped more than 800,000 people improve their financial stability, according to officials.

Clients, whose eligibility to ride may be income-driven or situational, pay no fee for the rides.

Drivers traverse all of Kennebec and Somerset counties to pick up clients — from Pittston in the south to north of Jackman on the Canadian border — a territory encompassing 5,045 square miles — clocking 1,400 to 1,600 miles a day, according to Wood and Chase. The drivers might take clients to hospital or doctor appointments in Bangor, Portland and even Boston.

“I have been here a long time and worked with volunteers,” Burton said. “I can’t say enough good things about them. These people are here not to get rich, by any means. They’ve saved a lot of lives.”

She told a story of a volunteer, an older man, who drove to Jackman every day for two years to pick up a 3-year-old child with autism and take him to Woodfords Family Services in Waterville. At the end of the child’s school day, the man would drive him back to Jackman. At first, the boy did not speak, but after the two years, he had become very verbal.

“The man was so proud of himself and that little boy for what he accomplished,” Burton recalled.

She said people have come to her feeling isolated, lonely and depressed; and after they become volunteer drivers, they are transformed.

“It’s the best thing they’ve ever done. They’re out. They’re meeting people. It turns their lives around.”

Bryant became a volunteer driver 13 years ago after he was laid off from his 12-year job in the shipping and receiving department at a dowel mill. Before that, he had owned and operated an auto repair and towing business for 15 years.

When he went looking for a job, employers told him he was too experienced for the positions. He found an advertisement in the newspaper for KVCAP drivers, applied, was accepted and has never turned back.

“I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” he said. “It’s very awesome, what we do.”

‘WELL WORTH IT’

On Thursday morning, Bryant was up at the crack of dawn to drive a woman from Waterville to Brunswick to visit a child as part of a child welfare referral matter.

Later in the morning, he drove to Patterson Avenue in Winslow to pick up Jewel York, 46, a woman who has autism and is partially nonverbal, to drive her to her job at Wendy’s restaurant in Waterville.

Bryant drove up to the Winslow house in his bright blue 2017 Ford Escape sporting a “KVCAP Volunteer Driver” sign on the dashboard. York climbed in and he greeted her warmly.

“You work over to Wendy’s every day?” he asked.

“Two days,” she said. “Eleven to two.”

York said she has worked at Wendy’s since she was 31.

“I bake the potatoes and I bake the bacon in the oven, fry the chickens in the fry-o-later,” she said. “I enjoy working at Wendy’s.”

Bryant drove back to Waterville across the Ticonic Bridge and up Front Street to College Avenue and crossed over to Main Street, where he pulled into the Wendy’s parking lot. York thanked him and got out, and he pulled over to record his pickup and drop-off times and mileage.

He headed off to Augusta to pick up a woman who was having dialysis and drive her home to Belgrade. Then he was to drive a woman from Waterville to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor for a doctor’s appointment. After that, he planned to drive two people from Winslow and Fairfield to the cancer center and pain clinic, respectively, in Augusta.

“I have about eight clients a day,” he said. “I usually leave the house between 6 and 6:30 a.m. and I get home between 5 and 6 p.m.”

He enjoys all of his clients, from those with special needs to those who have medical problems, he said. He recalled driving a young boy who was deaf from Waterville to Falmouth to a special school every day and back. Bryant became fond of the boy, who made sounds but did not really speak.

“Some days, he was very loud because he couldn’t hear himself,” Bryant said. “I learned some sign language — enough to help so I could communicate. I kept some cookies with me. He liked cookies.”

Bryant said he recommends people become volunteer drivers.

“If you’ve got spare time on your hands, it’s very well worth it. You’ve got a lot of elderly people who wouldn’t get to their doctors’ appointments if they didn’t have this service.”

Burton said Bryant is one of the best volunteer drivers for KVCAP. He’s a great driver and always happy, she said.

“We don’t worry when John has a trip that it won’t be completed, because it will be,” she said. “He’s dependable. He cares about his clients. He cares about our program.”

Those wanting to be a volunteer driver may contact Burton at 859-1631 or email her at [email protected]

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.