Carol Rasmussen smiles when she sees Steve Riley walk through the doors of the dialysis clinic after she finishes her four-hour Saturday sessions.
Officially, Riley is her driver, but unofficially, the two have become good friends over the past 18 months that he has been transporting her from her Plainwell home to the Kalamazoo clinic. Three days a week, he picks her up at 7:20 a.m. and brings her home before 1 p.m. It’s about a 20-minute drive each way, giving them time to talk about their lives. They’ve discovered they were both adopted.
“I feel so safe with him. He's been a long haul truck driver, and he's just very considerate of you as a person,” says Rasmussen, 80. “We have some things in common. It's just nice to talk with him.”
The feeling is mutual. “I wish everybody was like Carol. She’s easy to be around and never complains,” Riley says.
Carol Rasmussen depends on CAAC for rides to medical appointments.
The former truck driver says the work he does as a volunteer driver for Community Action of Allegan County (CAAC) is the most fulfilling he’s ever done. He provides transportation as part of CAAC’s Senior Services Program, giving seniors rides to and from their appointments. He also delivers food to people in need at least once a month.
Riley most enjoys meeting new people and helping his “regulars,” including making sure Rasmussen makes it to her kidney dialysis appointments on Saturdays.
“It’s a really unique experience hearing their stories and getting to know them,” Riley says.
Last year, thanks to volunteers like Riley, CAAC provided nearly 600 rides to Allegan County residents ages 60 and above and expects to do more this year. Drivers take seniors to medical appointments, grocery shopping, legal or financial meetings, church, or family visits. The transportation program is supported by the Area Agency on Aging of West Michigan and with the Allegan County Senior Millage fund.
“This gives older adults a means to stay independent,” says Lisa Evans, executive director of Community Action of Allegan County. “We also have an opportunity to deliver food to older adults who might need it and to do more wraparound services.”
The program is looking for more volunteer drivers so the program can serve more seniors. Drivers are reimbursed for their mileage.
Esperanza Carrasco-Morales, director of the Senior Nutrition and Senior Services programs for CAAC, oversees the drivers program.
“We run seven days a week and provide rides throughout the state from Allegan County,” says Carrasco-Morales, adding that the service wouldn’t be possible without dedicated volunteers like Riley.
Steve Riley has been volunteering for Community Action of Allegan County for five years.
“He pretty much opens up his schedule to us from 6 o'clock in the morning till 8 o'clock in the evening,” she says.
“He is such a blessing. I remember this time where he had to transport one of our clients out to Ypsilanti, so he was picking up the clients at 4 o'clock in the morning. It’s about a three-hour drive from Allegan County.”
The service is free. Appointments need to be made 24 to 48 hours in advance, and medical appointments are given priority. The program does accept donations from those it serves.
“We don't want to create a hardship for anyone, but if they're willing to, at the end of every month, we run a report and it gives them a contribution statement,” says Carrasco-Morales. “That just gives them a rough estimate of how much it costs to transport. If they want to give the full amount, that's fine. If they do not, that's perfectly fine as well.”
‘It’s about helping’
Riley says he takes pride in the role he plays and sees CAAC as an extremely valuable asset to the community.
CAAC “means everything to the people who wouldn’t make it through the month without some bit of help,” says Riley, who is sensitive to treating his passengers with dignity and a high level of service because he knows what it’s like to need help.
Following surgery to remove a cyst on his spine, he used a for-profit transportation service through his insurance to get to his doctor’s appointments. It wasn’t a good experience. He would be picked up with others already in the vehicle and sometimes not make it to his appointment on time or at all.
Volunteer driver Steve Riley takes Carol Rasmussen to her dialysis appointments.
“It was all about the dollar, whereas CAAC isn’t about that; it’s about helping,” Riley says. “From being on the other side, it’s nice to be able to give back and do something knowing what CAAC’s individualized service means.”
For decades, he spent his career making deliveries of vegetables and furniture from Michigan to California, until the removal of the cyst on his spine resulted in nerve damage that made it impossible to return to his job. He now uses a cane to walk.
“I can never say ‘why me,’ because there's always someone else out there worse off. So you just go with it, you know,” says Riley, who initially struggled with losing a career he loved. “I was home all the time and I needed something to do.”
He’s grateful his landlord, who served on the CAAC board of directors at the time, told him about the opportunity to be a volunteer driver. Volunteering with CAAC for the past five years has benefited Riley as much as those he is able to help.
“It’s been good for me to give back in a way that I can,” Riley says. “Donating time is just as valuable as donating money.”
Since he has a vehicle, he says, it’s better to put it to good use by helping someone in need of transportation get to a doctor’s appointment or go grocery shopping than to just sit around all day.
“It’s kind of a win-win all the way around — I’m helping people, plus I’m getting out of the house,” Riley says. “I’ve told them I’ll be here as long as I’m needed so I can help others.”
Learn more about CAAC volunteer opportunities here