On a sunny Monday morning this week on the back lawn of Evergreen Place, dozens of local folks celebrated the third anniversary of Free Wheelin’, The Valley’s free transportation service for homebound folks and others in need of a ride.
It was over three years ago when Johnnye Eure, Waitsfield, found herself offering rides to her fellow Evergreen Place residents. She was taking people to medical appointments and more in her 1995 vehicle. Even then, the need was greater than she could handle.
“Then I started running the food shelf and people needed a way to get here and I’d drive them. I started giving rides to people who I met at the food shelf to their appointments and even to the methadone clinic,” Eure said.
“Then I got to ‘why doesn’t the bus come anymore?’ I tried to go the town and see if we could get the town and see if we could get the bus,” she said recalling that she took Mike Bransfield with her.
They struck out at getting Green Mountain Transit to provide dedicated service for seniors and other homebound community members who needed transportation. Bransfield and Eure attended several Mad River Valley Transportation Committee meetings that also yielded no solutions.
“So I said to Johnnye and the senior board, we’ve got to do something. We need some transportation for our seniors,” recalled Bransfield, a Mad River Valley Seniors board member.
After realizing the need and recognizing that the existing services could not help, Bransfield, Euer and others brainstormed about how they might meet this need.
They did something all right. Their work led to the creation in 2019 of Free Wheelin’, a locally-operated nonprofit that since its creation has provided 2,500 rides, covered 73,000 miles, serving 190 clients (and growing) in the Mad River Valley using two cars as well as drivers’ cars. With a combination of some staff and volunteers, Free Wheelin’ provides about 100 rides a month. The service is available Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
TWO-YEAR PILOT PROJECT
“I made up a business plan and took it to Mad River Valley Community Fund, the Mad River Valley Interfaith Council and the senior center board. They all said yes to funding it. It was a two-year pilot project. We put down a $6,000 deposit for a Subaru, got a car loan and insurance and with money for gas, off we went,” said Bransfield, who is now the director of Free Wheelin’ and a volunteer driver.
After the first two years, the original funding organizations re-upped for another two years and local businesses and community members have helped provide additional funding.
Free Wheelin’ now has two cars, the original Subaru Forester, known as Daisy and a second Subaru Impreza, donated by the family of late Irene Mehuron, known as Foxy. Foxy was her car.
Free Wheelin’ offers rides not just to seniors, but to anyone in The Valley needing transportation. According to dispatcher Valerie McCord, those who use the service depend on it for getting them to and from medical appointments, social gatherings, grocery stores, the post office, beauty salon, and more.
“We are proud to be able to support our seniors with this critical and free transportation service, as well as offering rides to non-senior Valley residents who don't have transportation. The need for rides continues to increase,” McCord said.
THANKS TO DONATIONS
McCord said that thanks to donations from Lawson’s Finest, the Mad River Valley Rotary, Village Grocery and other businesses and community members, Free Wheelin’ is able to provide mileage reimbursement to drivers who use their own cars.
Bransfield, Eure are proud of Free Wheelin’ and all who help make it work.
“I’ll tell you this, I’m a big believer in ‘you put it out there and it comes back to you. It’s been a blessing and Michael, he’s my right hand, left hand and right foot,” Eure said.
Free Wheelin’ can be reached at 802-249-3427.
Free Wheelin has a strong stable of drivers and more are needed as more and more people in the community use the service. Drivers can use their own car or the Free Wheelin’ cars. Here is where people can learn more about driving: https://www.mrvfreewheelin.org/volunteer