Drivers and passengers both benefit from the Senior Center’s transportation program. (From left) Drivers Mike Sweedo, Philip Brister, Chuck Kelly, passengers Father Alex Tigga, Zoila Urias, Elvia Miranda, Rene Miranda. Photo by Patra Kelly

People find a sense of community in different ways. In our area it seems that many experience community by joining local organizations and groups that share a common interest or purpose. The Patagonia Senior Center transportation program is one such group. It offers rides to medical appointments, shopping when possible, and the airport. These drives can be enjoyable outings, taking both the passenger and driver out of their usual, mundane concerns.

They offer unique opportunities to meet and talk to people with diverse opinions. This is especially beneficial for some individuals who have become isolated when they are no longer able to drive. Two people in Sonoita and one in Patagonia, who do not want to leave the area, say that they could not live here without this transportation program.

Volunteer drivers were asked what motivates them to volunteer. Rhett Riehl replied, “I like having conversations with new people, as well as renewing connections with acquaintances in the area. And I like to drive. My wife, Peggy, often goes with me and is an excellent navigator.”

Annette Dorney answered, “I enjoy meeting the riders and learning about their lives and local experiences if they like to talk. In that way I have learned about some of the local history, being fairly new to the area. Also, I think it’s a great service for area people, some who really need it at times. If there comes a time when I need the help, I hope it will be there.”

Brad Sander explained, “I find this is a good way of community building, and since I am not from here, it’s a nice way to meet people I might not otherwise meet.”

Philip Brister said, “I am paying it forward. In ten years, I may need to be a passenger. And I have some wonderful conversations with my clients.”

Mike Sweedo, who is usually available at least once a week, said, “My wife wants me out of the house! Also, I enjoy driving people.”

Drivers always make their own schedules, letting the organizers know a week in advance the days they are available to drive. Sometimes drivers can take more than one person, if it can be easily coordinated. Drivers maintain confidentiality when hearing passengers’ health concerns.

The Patagonia Senior transportation program, (for people over 60 and those with disabilities of any age that live in Patagonia, the Lake, Sonoita and Elgin areas), has
expanded over the years. There are two vans and a small bus which seats nine people.

The requests for rides to Tucson, Sierra Vista, Green Valley and Nogales have greatly increased. In 2016, there were 17,421 miles driven. In 2017, the number almost doubled, to 34,779 miles driven, and in 2018, the number was 35,435. As more people hear about the program, more drivers are needed.

The greatest challenge seems to be at the administrative level; what government agencies are requiring from a nonprofit volunteer organization in order to keep the transportation program, including requirements in accounting, documentation and travel to meetings. These requirements are difficult to delegate because of the time needed to learn the frequently changing procedures for making reports and responding to deadlines.

The volunteer, nonprofit Patagonia Senior transportation program is unique. For now, people can appreciate it and enjoy it, but more help is needed in order to keep the program going.