Aleene Johnson was among a steady stream of seniors, some holding canes and reusable canvass grocery bags, who boarded a shuttle bus to the Rotunda Giant on March 15.
Johnson, who lives in the Broadview Apartments on University Parkway, said she wasn't sure what she would do when the Giant closes March 29 and a new Giant opens further away.
"Catch a cab, I guess," she said. "It's very expensive."
The driver of the minibus was Kimberly Allender, program coordinator for the Hampden-based organization Action in Maturity. AIM, a nonprofit transportation provider, offers low-cost shuttle service to the Giant on Thursday mornings. Allender fears for low-and-moderate-income seniors like Johnson, who live in hi-rises and retirement communities near the Rotunda.
In recent weeks, hundreds of area seniors, many of whom no longer drive and have trouble walking long distances, have been worried about how they would get to Giant's new location in the former Fresh & Green's store in the Greenspring Tower shopping center a quarter mile away.
From a senior's perspective, Allender said, the new store is not just down the street, but down a long hill.
"A lot of people can walk down, but they can't walk back because of the hill," Allender said.
Now, Action in Maturity is taking AIM at the problem — with Giant's help.
AIM plans to expand its Rotunda shuttle service to Tuesdays, starting April 3, and to include Greenspring Tower, 1030 W. 41st St.
And Giant, the Landover-based supermarket chain, confirmed last week that it will give AIM $5,000 to help cover the costs of gas and drivers' salaries.
"We're making a donation to the organization," Giant spokesman Jamie Miller said.. "We've realized that the closing of the Rotunda store does create some problems for some of the senior residents around the mall."
"They've certainly shown an interest in the idea," said 14th District Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who first asked AIM to enlist Giant's help in providing shuttle service after many seniors began calling her office worriedly.
It may sound like a small amount of money, but it's "enormously helpful," said Elizabeth Briscoe, executive director of AIM, who grew up in Govans and now lives in Cockeysville.
The relocation "seems like a simple move for a Giant, but you're talking about a frailer group."
Much of AIM's $250,000 annual budget comes from private donations and foundation grants (the Weinberg Foundation is a major donor), and is spread thin providing its roughly 550 members help with social and health services issues, as well as transportation to everything from doctors' appointments to outings such as a trip downtown March 18 to see a stage show.
Seniors pay a membership fee of $15 per year, plus $2 to $5 per ride. But the goal is to keep those fees as low as possible, said Briscoe and AIM board member Carolyn Donohue, of Roland Park.
Federal money from the Older Americans Act used to account for 80 percent of AIM's funding, but federal funding is down to 40 percent of AIM's budget now, they said, adding that they get no money from the city currently.
"I do have a (Community Development Block Grant) application in," said Briscoe, who spends much of her time writing grant requests.
Shuttle service to the new Giant is the latest initiative of AIM, a 40-year-old agency co-founded by Clarke that tries to improve seniors' quality of life while enabling them to live independently.
Headquartered in the St. Mary's Outreach Center at 3900 Roland Ave., AIM was founded not as a traditional senior center, but to provide transportation services and to partner with senior apartment buildings and institutions such as Union Memorial Hospital to conduct classes in areas ranging from the arts to physical exercise.
AIM's transportation services have grown from one minivan in 1973 to three minibuses and two cars now. The agency takes members to the Rotunda from as far away as Ruscombe Gardens and the Park View apartments in Coldspring-Newtown.
Other stops on the Rotunda route include Roland Park Place, Highfield House, Winthrop House and apartment buildings in the 4000 and 4100 blocks of North Charles Street and 3800 and 3900 blocks of Roland Avenue.
AIM also takes seniors from Stadium Place and the York Road corridor to grocery stores in those areas several days a week and picks up individual seniors at their homes or apartment buildings by appointment five days a week. AIM's transportation reach extends to federally subsidized housing and senior centers as far south as Monument Street in downtown Baltimore, Briscoe said.
AIM plans low-priced trips to malls, the theater and restaurants, and sponsors events like last week's Mardi Gras Day at St. Mary's Outreach Center, a St. Patrick's Day lunch at Ryan's Daughter in Belvedere Square, and a health fair with screenings and flu shots, also at the outreach center.
For the week of March 18, scheduled activities included going to see the Vagabond Players on Sunday, White Marsh Mall on Monday, a Noon Fellowship Lunch & Lecture about the War of 1812 at Second Presbyterian Church, in Guilford, on Wednesday, an areaWal-Mart and an Italian restaurant on Thursday and the Broadway Diner on Friday.
"All of these provide the socialization that is so needed to keep our seniors healthy," Donohue said.
In addition, AIM helps seniors with homeowners tax credit information and renters' credits, distributes farmers' market coupons subsidized by the Maryland Department of Agriculture for low-income seniors, and provides energy, legal and benefits assistance.
And AIM strikes partnerships with groups such as the Senior Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP) to deliver fresh produce to senior apartment buildings, and with Kathryn's Kloset, to give thousands of gallons of laundry detergent and cleaning supplies to seniors.
AIM also has partnerships with the Maryland Transit Administration, the Govans Ecumenical Development Corp., or GEDCO, and Civic Works, among others.
The most recent program already in effect is the just-started Pet Pantry Project. AIM is targeting schools in the area to help by donating dog and cat food and cat litter for the many seniors who have pets in their apartments, Briscoe and Donohue said.
All of the programs are part of an effort to increase AIM's community outreach.
"We're trying to become more of a face in north Baltimore," Briscoe said.
Everybody on the bus
But the program that has seniors talking these days is the planned expansion of the Rotunda shuttle — a service that Briscoe said will be available to nonmembers too.
"Obviously, there's a lot of buzz," Briscoe said. She is grateful for Giant's commitment, saying, "Sometimes corporate doesn't see the grass roots."
The grass roots on March 15 were seniors quickly filling Allender's 10-seat minibus.
"I'm exploring alternative forms of transportation as I get older," said a Highfield House resident, whose car was in the body shop after an accident. She would not give her name.
Martha Ann Peters, a resident of Winthrop House, wasn't really going to the Rotunda. She was just along for the ride.
"I like to get out," Peters said.
"I wouldn't get to the store if I had to walk," said Dorothy Green, of Park View Apartments.
"I want Giant to look out for us," said Rosalee Toogood, of Ruscombe Gardens.
Green figures she's good for Giant's business.
"They want people to come there," she said.