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East County Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022 3 weeks ago

Sarasota, Manatee seniors can tap into nonprofit ride service

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Two Lakewood Ranch men started a senior ride service after nonprofit ride-provider ITN Suncoast closed.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

With a fledgling nonprofit in their hands, Esplanade's Don Deibert and Tara's Bill Kaser sat around a dining room table and discussed their rules.

A year ago, the two men were volunteers for ITN Suncoast, a nonprofit that provided rides for seniors and those of any age who were vision impaired, until that Sarasota organization closed in December 2021. Deibert believes it was dissolved after getting too big, too fast.

Out of the flames came Senior Rides Transport, a new similar nonprofit the two built pretty much with the help of a handful of volunteers. It was organized to serve the Manatee County and Sarasota County areas.

Sitting at Deibert's home, they were discussing days of operation.

"Monday through Friday," Deibert said immediately. "We don't operate on weekends."

Kaser, who is a CPA when he isn't volunteering, raised his hand in mild protest.

"The reality is, if we can do it, we will do it," Kaser said.

While the two men can't help to show their enormous goodwill, they understand to be successful they must "crawl before they can walk" to set up a successful nonprofit that will survive the long term.

"Folks have this need," Deibert said. "I have seen it during my time driving (as a volunteer). In this area, we have a large senior population. People need to get to dialysis, to the doctor, to grocery shopping. They have had a horrible time finding reliable service."

They were both serving on the ITN Suncoast board of directors because they thought they were supplying that need. But the pandemic made people afraid to leave their homes and the nonprofit struggled.

Before the nonprofit dissolved in December, ITN Suncoast held a board meeting.

"At the board meeting, everyone was pushing to shut down the operation," Kaser said.

He tried to build support to keep the nonprofit alive. Only Deibert was interested. After they made their plea with the other six board members, they finally decided to go their own way.

"They were buying vehicles outright, and you don't need to do that," Kaser said. "You can finance. And they were paying drivers as contractors, and they didn't have adequate insurance."

Some of the former board members were worried about liability issues.

Kaser explained the volunteer drivers carry their own insurance and for Senior Rides Transport purposes, that is what is required by the state.

The two men opened Senior Rides Transport in March and have accumulated six volunteer drivers for routes. The umbrella organization, ITN America, is dedicated to senior transport and it continued to help the two former ITN Suncoast board members after they went out on their own, with things like software for scheduling drivers and appointments, and keeping a list of the riders.

Senior Rides Transport is a member organization, so those who want to purchase rides must be members and in the system. The dispatchers will know if the rider is using a wheelchair or a walker, or if they can get into a high vehicle, as well as other pertinent information. Deibert said most of their volunteers drive four-door cars, but they are open to using other vehicles if the riders can use them.

Senior Rides Transport has no paid employees, but Kaser and Deibert would like to see the day when they could buy vehicles that could be used by the nonprofit. They don't want to go back to the days when ITN Suncoast hired contractors to cover the routes because volunteers couldn't handle them.

Deibert said if they build slowly, they can build up their volunteer staff and continue to run the organization with no paid riders. Volunteers do receive 20 cents reimbursement per mile (though Deibert said many of them try to give the money back).

Riders do pay for rides, $2.15 per mile and a $2 pickup fee each day. Kaser said the rates are typically a bit under what someone would pay for Uber, except riders receive door to door assistance and have their appointments locked into the system ahead of time. 

Kaser, the treasurer, and Deibert, the chair, do the dispatching out of their homes now but eventually would like to have an office base for the nonprofit.

The two men started Senior Rides Transport with a federal grant of $15,000.

"All I keep hearing is how grateful everyone is," Kaser said. "One gentleman said it would cost him $1,000 a month in insurance to drive a car. A woman told me she is afraid to drive the busy roads.

"Shutting down ITN just didn't sit well with me."

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Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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