ITHACA, N.Y. –– An organization that brings veterans to their medical appointments has teamed up with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Way2Go program to increase the number of volunteer drivers available.

The Disabled American Veterans Volunteer Transportation Network works with veterans across the country to get them to VA-approved medical appointments for free. The Tompkins County chapter is currently in need of drivers, limiting the amount of trips they can make.

In an interview with the Ithaca Voice last year, DAV Coordinator Ed Rogers said Ithaca had six drivers when at a minimum they should have 10. That number has increased to 12 active drivers, but is still not meeting the demand.

“Ideally we’d like to double the number of active drivers,” he Rogers said.

Rogers said because of the limited amount of drivers, the program is only able to make trips to the VA hospital in Syracuse, instead of also accommodating trips to the local VA in Freeville. They also operate only three days a week –– Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“Between 20 and 25 (volunteers) is ideal. With that bigger number you’re going to get a better range of availability,” he said. “The ideal is to have enough drivers that would cover the local Freeville clinic and a run to Syracuse. Two trips a day, two drivers a day, available Monday through Friday.”

In January, the VA made a new ruling that veterans who live at least a 30-minute drive from a VA health care facility will be able to choose private care, and still be covered. That’s a big change for veterans living on the outskirts of Tompkins County, or those who need the type of care available in Syracuse, that could be found locally. Those vets will now be able to choose care closer to home.

“That’s going to increase our need for drivers as well,” Rogers said.

Because of the availability of the current drivers, trips going to the Freeville clinic are being handled by another Way2Go partner program, Gadabout. Gadabout provides transportation services using lift-equipped vehicles to elderly and disabled residents in Tompkins County. They employ some paid drivers, but rely heavily on volunteering as well.

Way2Go is an organization that connects riders with transportation options. They are working with nine organizations to promote volunteer opportunities. According to Peg Engasser, the Way2Go transportation educator, they are also working to increase the awareness around the county about the fact that these programs exist.

“There are gaps in the transportation system,” she said. “It’s a fact that some people just fall in between what the transit system can provide and their income level or their health or other factors can provide.”

According to Engasser, the experience of being a volunteer driver can create meaningful connections between drivers and passengers.

“Even if the whole relationship starts and ends with the ride, just in the course of driving someone across town, you can have a short but valuable relationship,” she said. “Then there are drivers that drive the same people over and over again and they really get to know them.”

She also said it’s a good way to know you’re really making a difference.

“The drivers really appreciate those relationships. They very much appreciate the fact that they’re giving direct help, she said. “There’s nobody in between the need and the delivery of the need.”

To get involved you can visit the Way2Go website and browse the volunteering opportunities. Or to get directly involved with the DAV network, call Ed Rogers at 315-425-4353.

Volunteers operate one of the DAV’s available vehicles.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com