August 08, 2012 - Being able to hop in a car and drive anywhere at anytime is a privilege that most people take for granted.
But there are plenty of folks out there, who for one reason or another, don't have or can't afford that luxury.
Fortunately for them, there's a new service called Freedom Road Transportation (FRT) based in Lake Orion.
Serving all of Oakland County, including Oxford and Addison townships, FRT provides mileage reimbursement to people who earn $20,000 or less annually, so they can pay volunteer drivers to take them shopping, to medical appointments, to attain employment and other activities.
"By providing transportation options to people living with a low income, (that can) reduce social isolation and perhaps, improve a person's quality of life," said Mike Daley, who serves on FRT's Board of Directors and works as the manager of customer services for the Oakland County Community Mental Health Authority.
FRT provides reimbursement for drivers at a rate of 55 cents per mile.
"Every driver has a budget of 100 miles per month, so that's $55," Daley said. "Currently, we have about 37 riders using the service. We do have five applications that are being processed. Our goal is to have 100 riders by Oct. 1."
Right now, FRT simply provides qualified riders with the funds to reimburse volunteer drivers. These drivers must be found by the riders. FRT doesn't supply them.
"The insurance costs are so much more reasonable by having the relationship with the rider and not the driver," Daley said. "As soon as we start doing background checks and driver's license/driving record checks then our liability goes up and our insurance expense will be very high."
Given it's a start-up organization, FRT has a limited amount of funds to work with. Back in January, it received a $100,000 grant from the state's Department of Community Health and that's all FRT has to work with until it secures additional means of financial support.
"We didn't want to use the dollars from the grant to purchase insurance," Daley said. "We wanted it to go for the riders."
FRT may branch out in the future to finding and providing volunteer drivers.
"With increased funding, increased awareness and increased support, then we can branch out and help identify drivers because we are running into situations where people don't know who to ask or how to do that," Daley said.
To help increase its funding, FRT is hosting an appreciation dinner/silent auction on Friday, Sept. 28 at the Lafayette Grande Banquet Facility in downtown Pontiac.
"Our focus right now is on gathering support from the community, businesses and individuals to sponsor the dinner as well as donate silent auction items," Daley said.
FRT is also in the process of pursuing other grants, so it's hired the services of grant-writers.
"Grant writing is an art of its own," Daley noted.
Daley noted that other than paying some people to help with fund-raising and grant-writing activities, FRT's board of directors consists of all unpaid volunteers including himself.
For now, the only qualification one needs to receive mileage reimbursement from FRT is an annual income of $20,000 or less and residency in Oakland County.
"Anyone in Oakland County with low-income, we can enroll now," Daley said. "We assume that if somebody has the resources, they're probably already paying somebody themselves. This really is meant for people who would be isolated (otherwise), who don't have options readily available."
Although the current income qualification is broad, Daley noted the qualifications could change with the addition of other funding sources.
"Different grants and different funding will have more restrictions than that," he explained. "We know that other grants that we have applied for will be a little more specific."
A perfect example of someone who could use FRT's services right now is a low-income individual who finds a job, "but they're not sure that they're going to be able to get there," Daley said.
FRT can provide this person with mileage reimbursement for a driver, so they're not constantly asking someone for favors in order to get to work. Once they've established themselves at the new job, this individual may be able to find someone to carpool with.
"We're trying to empower people and not let transportation be a barrier to seeking employment," Daley said.
Another example can be found in a Leonard woman, who attends Immanuel Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) in Oxford Village. Her husband recently suffered a severe medical problem and he's currently being treated in a rehabilitation facility in Troy. He's expected to be there for about four to six weeks.
This woman has never had a driver's license and she wants to visit her husband. Troy is 24 miles away and she has no nearby family to drive her there.
However, she does have "a very, very close church family," said Liz Wilson, pastor of Immanuel UCC. "We really love her and her husband."
The church is seeking volunteer drivers to take her. Wilson indicated this woman would like to visit her husband on a daily basis.
"He's a little confused at this point, so it would be valuable for him to have that consistency of her always seeing him," the pastor said.
Anyone interested becoming a volunteer driver for this woman is invited to call Immanuel UCC at (248) 628-1610.
FRT is in the process of seeing if it can provide mileage reimbursement.
Given her visits would be 48 miles round-trip, Daley said a committee is reviewing her case to see if an exception can be made to the 100-mile-per-month limit.
He noted if anyone reading this would like to contribute toward paying for her mileage, they can contact FRT.
"If we can help offset that cost, it's a win-win for everybody," Daley said. "That's a good example of what we believe Freedom Road Transportation will be able to do for people who would be isolated otherwise."
Currently, FRT only has two riders from Oxford.
"It's helped my life tremendously," said FRT rider Jackie Heller, of Oxford. "Hopefully, there will be enough grants in the future and enough contributions that we can extend the monthly mileage limit."
"The good news is you guys have NOTA, which is a great service and option for seniors, specifically, and people with disabilities as well," noted Daley, referring to Oxford's small number of riders. "When people call, we do mention NOTA to them. It's not that we won't serve them; it's just that they do have a resource available to them."
Daley's referring to the North Oakland Transportation Authority (NOTA), which provides rides via buses and vans to folks living in Oxford, Addison and Orion townships along with their respective villages.
NOTA provides free transportation seven days a week to senior citizens, the mentally and physically handicapped, developmentally disabled folks, transit dependent individuals and participants in the welfare-to-work program.
But some people might not qualify for NOTA or the organization might not be a good fit for their needs, so Daley indicated FRT is now here to provide another option.
For more information about FRT, please call (248) 232-1259 or visit on-line at www.freedomroadtransportation.org
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.