ENCINITAS — Former businessmen Bill Thomson, Pete Wegehaupt and Owen Showalter found the cure for the lack of purpose that afflicts many men after retirement: They are volunteer drivers in the city of Encinitas’ Out and About Transportation Program.
The program provides free door-to-door transportation to homebound seniors for routine tasks such as grocery shopping and doctor appointments as well as social and recreational activities like visiting the YMCA.
Since beginning as a driver in 2007, Thomson has logged the highest amount of miles of any volunteer in the program. He says the fact that the staff is organized makes his job easy.
“They’ll call me a day ahead to schedule the ride,” he said.
“Some of the passengers are limited physically, or don’t have good eyesight, so I have to be careful getting them inside and out.”
Thomson says the only complaints he receives are about his humor.
“I’m known for my dumb jokes, and am told I am the ‘master of groaners,’” he said, laughing.
Wegehaupt works as a team with Suzie, a Maltese who rides on the seat next to his side while he’s driving. One of Wegehaupt’s passengers was so taken with Suzie that she asked him to drive her to the animal shelter to adopt a shih tzu, then to the veterinarian’s office to get the dog spayed.
Another favorite is a woman he refers to as “Maria.”
“I’m always taking her to dances,” he said. “She loves to dance!”
Showalter was a real estate broker before retiring about eight years ago. Both he and his wife, Norma, are volunteer drivers. Initially, he started as a way of “giving back” but in the process developed a lifetime friendship with a couple in their 90s. When the husband developed Alzheimer’s disease, Showalter supported the wife by taking her for visits with her husband at the assisted-living facility. After she became widowed, the friendship continued.
“She is an absolute kick, so astute and charming,” he said. “My wife and I take her to lunch, or she takes us. Sometimes we take her to our home for dinner. This has been a wonderful, wonderful experience from my standpoint.”
Currently the city serves 109 passengers with 59 volunteer drivers. There is a wait list of 13.
To respond to demand, City Council approved $12,000 for further program expansion and to recruit 10 to 15 more volunteer drivers in the next six months.
“We are excited about this as we strive to accommodate everyone on our waiting list,” said Gail Dupler, Out and About transportation coordinator.
Requirements for becoming a driver include having a few hours of free time per week, a current driver’s license, registration, insurance and a good DMV driving record. Volunteer drivers are reimbursed the current annual IRS rate, per mile, per month, not to exceed 100 miles per month per passenger.
Heidi Strasser signed up as a volunteer driver after being a recipient of the program when she became stranded as a result of a serious illness compounded by the fact that her car broke down.
“I had never been in that position before,” she said. “It’s very tough situation because you are totally isolated. People are really in need.”
Strasser added that the program also stimulates the economy.
“What’s nice is that seniors can get out and patronize local businesses,” she said.
Another recipient of the program, who asked to remain anonymous, said she needs the program, not because she is disabled, but because cutbacks in public transportation have reduced the number of bus routes to hubs with doctors and medical facilities.
“I could not function without the program, and I have never been let down,” she said. “If I didn’t have the driver, I’d have to move. I can’t ask friends because they are my age and have their own issues.”
Wegehaupt said he and Suzie continue to volunteer because he has learned firsthand that, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
“I challenge people,” he said. “They have no idea until they get into the habit of giving that they are the ones who are receiving.”
For information, call Gail Dupler at (760) 943-2250, email [email protected] or visit ci.encinitas.ca.us.