News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Volunteers provide vital ride service

Sisters Transportation and Ride Share (STARS) is an invaluable local program that offers free transportation for all Sisters Country residents, to Sisters, Bend, and Redmond for all non-emergency medical appointments: physicians, dental, vision, physical therapy, hearing, lab work, testing, and vaccinations.

STARS and COVID-19 came on the scene within months of each other, and yet STARS volunteers were able to provide 146 rides in under a year’s time in 2020 with hefty pandemic restrictions in place.

In 2021, volunteers provided 389 rides totaling over 20,000 miles. As one rider said, “I don’t know what I’d do without you guys,” a sentiment expressed by many of their passengers.

The STARS program is one of the Action Teams under the umbrella of Age Friendly Sisters Country (AFSC), which was established in 2019 with a seven-member board of concerned Sisters citizens. The organization has been officially recognized by the World Health Organization as one of the eight Age Friendly communities in Oregon.

With input from the former Senior Alliance, CFC, AFSC, and data gathered during the Sisters Country Visioning Project, transportation services for those who don’t drive was identified as one of the big needs here in Sisters.

After the formation of AFSC, a group of local citizens applied to them for Action Team status to establish a ride-share program. The AFSC provided board support, administrative assistance, and fiscal support for STARS, which now is under the leadership of Toni Landis, Rennie Morrell, Tom Gonsiewski, and Frank Flannery. Morrell reports they currently have about 50 qualified volunteer drivers, 91 enrolled passengers, and nine trained dispatchers, with three more Spanish-speaking volunteers receiving dispatcher training this week.

The STARS program is organized around a software program called SPEDSTA. Someone needing a ride can call in on Tuesday or Thursday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to make a request at least 48 hours in advance. Rides are available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The requests are posted on the website for drivers to see. If a volunteer driver can take the ride, he/she calls the passenger to arrangement for pick-up and return.

Drivers for STARS are community members who donate both time and gas so that Sisters Country residents can get much-needed help. Drivers must pass a background check, provide proof of automobile insurance, and go through training.

A new addition to the STARS offering is the ability for Spanish-speaking neighbors to call in on Monday or Wednesday to book rides. They will be provided with a driver who speaks Spanish. The move to this service began when Volunteers in Medicine began booking rides for their Spanish-speaking Sisters patients, and the need was recognized to provide rides to our Latino neighbors.

Monetary and in-kind donations have helped grow the program. A partial list of donors includes Citizens4Community, City of Sisters, St. Charles Health System, Roundhouse Foundation, STARS passengers, and several anonymous donations, including one that allowed for the purchase of the software program.

“What we have been able to do in two short years, especially considering COVID, has been miraculous,” said Morrell.

She credits the generosity and caring of local community members and the flexibility of the program for much of their success.

“Anyone who needs a non-emergency medical ride has access to one through STARS,” Morrell noted.

A STARS passenger for part of 2021, Steve Jenkins needed rides into Bend three times a week for dialysis, with each appointment lasting up to four-and-a-half hours.

Of the drivers, Jenkins said, “Every one of them were super great people. People who do that driving are outstanding to take their time to drive us.”

Karen Thrower, a local designer and artist, has served as one of the dispatchers who volunteers about three days a month to answer those Tuesday-Thursday calls from passengers.

“I love helping our community,” Thrower said, “being part of such a vital, much-needed service.”

The feedback she hears from riders include great appreciation for the service, delight with the conversations they have (both riders and drivers), and much gratitude. Thrower said in all her time as a dispatcher, she has only had one request that couldn’t be filled. She said the volunteer drivers are wonderful about making sure the riders are taken care of.

Temporarily, STARS added an important service during COVID, delivering meals to home-bound residents. But, once meals resumed at Sisters Community Church, they were no longer needed. They also provided rides to get vaccinations and boosters. They do some pickup and delivery of preordered, prepaid groceries, health care products, and prescription refills.

Dixie Eckford, a volunteer driver who has also been instrumental in AFSC, provides rides about five times a month because, she said, “I like to meet people. Everyone is wonderful. And I want to build up good karma. The day may come when I need STARS’ help.”

Eckford’s passengers Claudia Holle-Langer and her sister Marti Cockrell really enjoyed their ride with Eckford, who drove them into Bend and back. Cockrell found the ride relaxing and thought it was nice to meet new people. Holle-Langer saw the information about STARS in The Nugget and, since she has no car, was very happy to find their services.

Eckford encourages others, “If you like to drive and want to meet your neighbors, join up.”

To learn more about STARS, go to the website and click on Action Teams. On that same website, a donation may be made designating STARS. To arrange a ride, call the dispatch office at 541-904-5545 on Tuesday or Thursday between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., at least 48 hours prior to your appointment. Volunteers are also always welcome.


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