No money for random riders

NNSL file photo Elise Marie takes the driver's seat of the handi-van in 2012. The vehicle may be available on a more limited basis.

NNSL file photo
Elise Marie takes the driver’s seat of the handi-van in 2012. The vehicle may be available on a more limited basis.

The popular pick-up and drop-off service run by the Hay River Committee for Persons with Disabilities will be stopping service to about half the people it currently drives as of March 23.

“The volume of service needed has just grown and grown,” said executive director Pravina Bartlett, one of two people who have been running the van on a volunteer basis for years.

“It’s gotten to the point where people need it for their day-to-day lives, but the growth of our group is in programming for our clients and that’s where we’re seeing we’re doing the most good.”

Since 2008, the handi-van has been mostly privately funded, with local businesses and volunteers chipping in to raise money to run the service. But the funding has not grown along with the demand. According to Bartlett, there are about 28 people who the council either has contracts for – such as school students – or who participate in programming and are funded through that. There are another 30 people who qualify for the service, but who are not subsidized by any government program.

The committee’s board of directors held an emergency meeting last week to discuss the situation and ultimately decided to stop service to those 30 or so people unless funding comes through to support it.

“We do not have the resources to fund the handi-van or a qualified driver other than Pravina and Kurtis,” said the committee’s president Lillian Crook at the emergency meeting. “In order to provide the service to the community, they volunteer extra hours an a daily basis while maintaining the office, providing advocacy and delivering programming … Their workload is already at a maximum capacity and the program funding for their jobs does not include fundraising for or driving the handi-van for other clients.”

As it stands, Bartlett and her co-worker have been dashing out from their regular jobs at the council’s facility in the industrial area to pick up and drop off clients, a situation Bartlett said can be managed, but is in no way sustainable.

“We need a driver for it,” she said.

“If it was funded, no problem; we would hire someone full-time. But it’s not. We need to focus on our clients and the ones we have contracts for.”

Bartlett said the cost of running the van at the current demand level is about $70,000 a year, including a fair salary for a driver. The funding in 2013 was just shy of $30,000 – nearly half of which was fundraised by volunteers through bake sales and other initiatives. She said she has run the gamut of government departments and grants from federal and territorial to the municipality of Hay River. In previous years, the town has allocated $5,000 a year in support of the service, but Bartlett said she has yet to hear about the grant for 2014. The van does upwards of 200 trips in a given month.

“There are literally no more hours in the day I can squeeze out for this,” she told The Hub. “For the last two years, we’ve been working 12 hours a day, Monday through Friday, to accommodate everyone.”

Bartlett said she has received calls for pick-ups at 12:30 in the morning as well as on weekends and believes people do not understand that the van is a voluntarily run service and not an arm of the government. Because of this misunderstanding, she said callers are often abusive and rude – demanding why they cannot be picked up exactly when they want and often becoming angry when they are refused.

“It’s hard for us to make this decision,” said Bartlett, adding that two board members will actually suffer as a result of the decision when services to either themselves or their dependents are cut off next week.

“We know people need this. There are no taxis that can accommodate wheelchairs in this town and even if there were, not everyone can afford a taxi.”
The handi-van charges a flat $5 fee for a return trip, including rides as far as Enterprise. Bartlett said the nominal fee doesn’t cover much in terms of the running of the aging van, between servicing and fuel, not to mention frequent repairs.

Bartlett said that the council is working hard to increase programming and services like hot meals and life-skills workshops for their clients and with the facility finally up and running, she has welcomed about 100 individuals through the doors.

“The programming is what we see is making the biggest difference for our clients and their families,” she said.

“We need to focus on that, because that’s where this group is heading towards and growing.”

-Sarah Ladik