Improving independence for seniors and veterans in Phoenix through transit resources
The northwest Phoenix metropolitan area is lacking in public transportation, which is a particular challenge for seniors. While some Dial-a-Ride services existed, transportation gaps made it a challenge for many people to grocery shop, visit doctors, or see family and friends. In 2014, two existing non-profits, Benevilla and Sun Health, came together to incorporate Northwest Valley Connect (NVC) with the goal of improving transit coordination and awareness of available resources.
Ensuring transportation availability and safety during COVID-19
Northwest Valley Connect (NVC) provides transportation and access to transit resources to people in need throughout the Phoenix metropolitan area. In March 2020, Microsoft donated $10,000 to the organization to help sustain operations.
COVID-19 presented a unique set of challenges for the non-profit, and the funds helped to purchase personal protective equipment for drivers and riders, including gloves and masks, as well as disinfecting cleaners for both vehicles and the NVC call center. NVC is typically funded in large part by individual donations, and with charitable giving down 6 percent in the first quarter of 2020, the group was in need of dollars to continue operating. The Microsoft contribution also paid for fuel to keep vehicles on the road while NVC re-evaluates its traditional fundraising model to a virtual model, rather than hosting in-person events.
Providing rides and education to connect the community
NVC has its own call center staffed by folks who are knowledgeable around transit offerings in the community. The group aims not to duplicate services, and will provide referrals to other organizations or services as appropriate, such as to other available Dial-a-Ride partners. Operators will also offer “travel training,” walking callers through the process of connecting with a taxi company or other provider and can also ensure disabled riders are set up with accessible vehicles. From NVC’s start in May of 2014 through the end of 2014, they provided 656 trips. Their growth has been significant; in 2019, they fielded 23,500 calls and provided 16,895 trips as demand increases and other transit options in the area change.
NVC has been contracted by communities like El Mirage to provide the city’s Dial-a-Ride services, due to the availability of accessible vehicles and the number of drivers. As calls have come in from a wider geographic area, NVC sources drivers from a larger area to serve the growing need, with a total of 45 volunteer drivers.
Modifying operations during COVID-19
NVC is adapting to fit shifting demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. During summer, the group typically loses some drivers who leave the area in the warmer months. With COVID-19, some volunteer drivers paused their driving schedules due to being at higher risk of contracting the virus. However, a core group of about 15 volunteers are committed to providing riders with critical transportationto medical appointments like dialysis, despite local shutdowns.
The NVC call center remained open to receive calls even when other businesses were closed. A group of volunteers also got together to call all of NVC’s clients from the previous year to ask how they were holding up during the early months of COVID-19, if they had any particular needs, and if they wanted a weekly call to check in. As many of these clients are isolated without friends or family, this point of connection was important. 70 clients opted to receive weekly calls from volunteers. As volunteer Mickey Dorathy reports, “I was talking to a couple of people this week and they said that just talking to someone boosts their spirits and makes them feel much better, like there’s someone out there who cares about what happens to them and they are not alone. They tell me they look forward to my call every week. I tell them I feel the same way when talking with them, because I do. I can relate to what they are going through and I get as much or more out of our chats as they do.”
In order to limit clients’ possible exposure to germs, NVC volunteers and their three ASU interns began helping people order groceries online. The volunteers will then go pick up the grocery orders and provide contactless drop off to the client. 66 clients are enjoying this offering on a regular basis, and others are welcome to utilize the service as the need arises. NVC’s Executive Director Kathy Chandler sees this service continuing beyond the pandemic. “This isn’t exactly what we started doing, but I don’t think we would stop it. It really is a benefit.”