Charlotte Dial A Ride secures a better ride for wheelchair clients

Submitted photo David Kennedy, left, and John Castell, with the new Charlotte Dial A Ride MV-1 mobility vehicle.

CHARLOTTE COUNTY – Dana Planetta is executive director of Charlotte County Alternative Transportation Association Inc., the legal name for Charlotte Dial A Ride (CDAR) since 2005. Of the driving programs in the province, Planetta says the 2004-founded CDAR is the “Mamma of them all” and has since served as a resource with other organizations starting-up.

Since it began, CDAR have provided 96,000 rides. “That’s roughly 5,000 to 7,000 one-way rides a month,” says Planetta, “although COVID has made that dip a little bit.” CDAR helps people get to employment, education, and medical destinations.

CDAR seeks to be accessible to all residents in Charlotte County with some clients being wheelchair users. One gentleman goes to work once a week at Community Living Centre in St. George. Other wheelchair users need to access medical care. “We had been giving rides to people in wheelchairs who could get out of them (the chairs) and into a volunteer’s car,” Planetta says. The disadvantages were numerous, for the clients who had to get out of their chairs, and for the volunteers who had to stow the wheelchairs in their car trunks.

“Since day one we have said that we wanted to be all-inclusive,” Planetta says. “But a wheelchair accessible van was a dream. For years it has been on our bucket list.” Making the dream come true was a client who had a MV-1 (mobility vehicle) which was no longer used and she wanted to sell.

The MV-1 is a wheelchair accessible van built for people with disabilities. The advantage of having a vehicle designed for wheelchair users rather than a converted minivan, according to Greg Williams in an article in driving.ca is that “…after being bundled into the back of one of these converted vans, there’s really not much dignity involved; you’re basically cargo, carried where the luggage usually goes.” The article also notes the failure rate of converted vans.

The MV-1 has a right-hand side loading ramp that can be manually or automatically deployed, and can fit both wheelchairs and scooters. Driver.ca quotes Nick Grande, a Canadian involved with the universal-design principles, who describes the van as “A London Taxi on steroids.”

Having an attainable dollar value for a used MV-1, CDAR began fundraising through foundation and community donations. In the community, events such as dinners at the Europa Inn in Saint Andrews, and the St. George Masonic Lodge increased the pot of money. Raffles were popular, and one quilt alone raised $2,000. Other area and individuals were very generous, and the Christofor Foundation helped propel fundraising towards its goal.

The CDAR community-raised funds were matched by the J.T. Clark Family Foundation. As the CDAR media release describes, the $20,000 the group raised would be matched if it were to: 1. encompass involvement across Charlotte County (a community fundraising challenge), 2. increase awareness of the services provided, 3. established a solid ongoing funding foundation 3. establish a solid ongoing funding foundation to support the van and CDAR operations, and 4. Be accomplished with a defined timeline.

The fundraising proved to be quick, and was completed largely over a three month period. CDAR not only achieved the goal of purchasing the van, but Planetta adds it raised upwards of $40,000. “We invested $20,000 to start an endowment fund with the Fundy Community Foundation,” she says.

“People can donate and over the years the interest will come to us.”

The Saint Croix Courier caught up with long-time CDAR volunteer and board member, John Castell, in between drives for CDAR clients. Castell has been with the organization since the beginning and says he has “Been trying to get a wheelchair van for at least 10 years,” so they could accommodate people of all abilities.

The difference is “huge,” Castell says. He describes some of the difficult situations he faced been before the MV-1 van. “Some people in wheelchairs are more than 200 pounds, so we could only send strong volunteers to help them into the volunteer’s car.

“Other people use electric wheelchairs and those you can’t put in the back of an SUV or the trunk of a car. We had one teacher who had to hand-power herself from class to class because we couldn’t accommodate her wheelchair,” Castell recalls. Oxygen tanks were another trial, as most are attached to wheelchairs.

Being in a maritime environment presented other transportation barriers. Previously, if Grand Manan clients could get someone to help them onto the ferry, Castell says, “The Blacks Harbour ferry operator was really good about letting me drive onto the ferry to pick them up. Now people in motorized wheelchairs can just drive off the ferry and get on the van.”

Volunteers need training in certain areas, such as operating the ramp and tie downs. There is a training video, but Castell says trainees also need in-person sessions, which he describes as “very doable.” To date, four CDAR volunteers are trained in driving and operating the MV-1.

The first person to use the MV-1, David Kennedy says, “I was the guinea pig, but no body dropped me.”

Kennedy met CDAR when he served as a volunteer driver. Now, he uses an electric wheelchair, and uses CDAR to get from Fundy Nursing Home in Blacks Harbour, to important medical appointments in Saint John. Kennedy has mobility issues and “Tends to fall when I walk,” so a wheelchair is necessary for going any further than walking around his room. His parents, who “live around the corner,” were taking him to his appointments, but Kennedy was worried about this arrangement as his parents age and so he uses CDAR.

Before the MV-1, Kennedy would have to be go in a manual wheelchair, transfer to the volunteer’s vehicle, have them stow the wheelchair, repeat the process upon arrival, and have someone push him in the wheelchair to his destination. Not only is the MV-1 easier for himself and the volunteer driver, Kennedy says it increases his independence. Once at the location, he can take himself to where he is going. “It’s kind of nice to be a grown-up,” he laughs.

Kennedy, who has been using his wheelchair for three years, fully realizes the restrictions it places upon him. “It’s surprising how many places are not wheelchair accessible, even the drugstore in St. George does not have automated doors,” he says. “I have to wait for someone to open them.”

Another problem he has encountered is washrooms which are not wheelchair accessible. “Sometimes it says it is, but the doors are not automatic, so I can’t open the door to get into the washroom.”

Kennedy likes getting out. “I like going down to Hooper’s [Village Mart], or go to church nearby,” he says.

“I like getting out in the open air.”

COVID had imposed restrictive lock downs, and extended lock downs are in place at the nursing home where he resides. Except for medical visits, Kennedy says, “Because I am living in a nursing home, we’re not allowed to go out visiting or whatever.”

Until Kennedy is “released” as he puts it, he is doing his best to stay busy while in lock down. “The minister has not been allowed to come and we have had no church services in quite some time,” he says.

Kennedy has been filling in by hosting a service. “I found a non-denominational and dementia friendly church service on YouTube,” he describes. “It with very simple, with lots of hymns. Everyone seems to like it.”

When Kennedy is able to get about again, it is possible as the province has lifted COVID restrictions, the MV-1’s sneeze guard to come down and allow the front seat to become a wheelchair position, allowing Kennedy to ride shotgun. One of MV-1’s special features is wheelchairs can go up front next to the driver.

As Grande says in driver.ca, “We call it the dignity position.”

liangoodall@advocateprinting.com

lian goodall