When the Dial-A-Ride transportation service for the disabled and the elderly started up on St. Thomas back in 1985, it was a hard sell to many residents.
“It took some time to get the community to buy in,” said Rosemary Sumas, executive director of Dial-A-Ride.
Now it has more than 900 registered clients, though many of them don’t use the service on a regular basis. Sumas said DAR actually served 104 people the last quarter (January-March) and some of them took numerous trips each week.
“We have people we take for dialysis. We have people we take for cancer treatment,” and some of those are five days a week, Sumas said.
Other popular trips are to doctor’s offices, drug stores, grocery shopping and the laundry.
“We serve anyone 62 or over, so you don’t even have to be disabled” to use DAR, Sumas said, but she added that “We give priority based on need.”
While the agency serves St. Thomas, some of the passengers come from Water Island or St. John to use resources on the larger island. DAR also works with Tourism when needed. In a recent instance, it transported a wheelchair-bound woman from a cruise ship to the hospital where her husband had been taken by ambulance because of a medical emergency. He required a hospital stay, and DAR provided transportation for his wife back and forth to the hospital during their unexpected stay on island.
Earlier this month Sumas attended a three-day workshop at the V.I. Territorial Emergency Management Agency, in preparation for DAR’s role in case of a hurricane or other disaster.
The agency is funded primarily through a local government grant channeled through the Department of Human Services and supplemented by private contributions. It is free to those who cannot afford to pay, Sumas said, but most clients are charged a relatively small amount – $3 for a trip within town, $3.50 to $4 for a longer trip to the “country.” That covers two people if the client needs to travel with a companion.
DAR vehicles are equipped with wheelchair lifts and designed for passengers who need assistance so “You can be transported with dignity,” Sumas said.
“It’s not about getting a person from Point A to Point B,” she said. “It’s about making their lives whole.”
Service is available Monday through Friday. Sumas said the first pick-up is usually at 7 a.m. The last driver leaves work at 6 p.m.
These days, there’s a bit less service, because there’s a lot less funding, and that’s more than troubling for Sumas.
“We had a $150,000 grant (from the Department of Human Services) that’s gone down to about $67,000. ”
The cuts came in incremental decreases each year for about three years.
Meanwhile, the private-sector-support DAR was receiving from United Way has also decreased.
“We used to get $75,000 from United Way, but they don’t have the money now,” she said.
Last year United Way allocated $60,000 to Dial-A-Ride. This year, just $48,000.
“I had to cut down on staff,” Sumas said. It used to be there were four full-time drivers. Now there is one full-time driver, one part-time, and the agency’s operations coordinator – a former driver before her promotion – sometimes doubles as a driver. Drivers have to be trained and certified.
The radio dispatcher has been cut to a part-time position, and the position of a full time office clerk has been eliminated.
There are six vehicles, some of them late-models, but three of them are down for maintenance and repairs that Sumas said she can’t afford to make.
There are some bright spots. Sumas said a number of companies and individuals support the agency’s work. Bronx Communications has supplied radios, for example, and Boynes Inc. recently began donating fuel.
“We do have a very caring community,” she said.
Nevertheless, “If we don’t get adequate funding, we’re not going to be able to provide any services.”