Emily Shearn and Pat Harvey are bundled against the cold as they sit in wheelchairs at the curb outside their apartment in Columbia's Kings Contrivance village.
John Jenks drives up in his Urban Rural Transportation Alliance (URTA) van and helps them board in a ritual the three have repeated most weekdays for several years. He helps Shearn, who has severe cerebral palsy, wipe the condensation from her glasses, then fluffs her hair so that she'll look her best.
Drivers for URTA -- a nonprofit agency based in east Columbia that provides van transportation for elderly, disabled and
low-income residents -- are acutely aware of their passengers' needs for help.
Years ago, drivers noticed that Harvey's caretakers left her on the curb early each morning, forcing her to wait in the cold for longer than necessary. Harvey was transferred to a group home that she likes better.
But sometimes drivers see problems they aren't trained to handle. So this fall, URTA allowed two University of Maryland Baltimore County social work undergraduates to ride the buses, work with the drivers and arrange help for passengers.
URTA Executive Director Janet McGlynn, who proposed the students' project to a UMBC professor, said: "Our job could be just curb-to-curb transportation, but often our drivers are the only people who know a passenger's problem. We think that creates an obligation for us. It is distressing to our drivers if no one is offering a helping hand.
"Perhaps URTA can play a small role in the well-being of some of its riders."
tTC The students, 30-year-old Kathy Fountain and 50-year-old Janet Gaines, can sometimes arrange a case easily.
A low-income passenger might need to take a child on a shopping trip, and Gaines and Fountain can teach the driver how to install a child-safety seat. And if a driver notices that an elderly passenger is becoming more frail, Gaines and Fountain can help the passenger's family find an agency to provide a low-cost wheelchair.
Other times, the cases are more complicated. Several weeks ago, a young, mentally retarded man was boarding the bus each morning in front of his group home, then removing all his clothes as the van pulled away. The bus driver called Fountain for help.
Fountain told the man's social worker, and she speculated that the situation might have a simple solution -- maybe the young man's clothes were too tight, maybe he was trying to say he wanted to go back to bed. A few days later, the man was back on the bus and remaining fully clothed.
Not every story has a happy ending. A driver introduced Gaines to a man in a wheelchair who rode URTA regularly for errands and business.
Health problems had led the man to resign from his job, and the driver soon saw signs that the man's home life might be deteriorating. The driver noticed that the man's wife was less helpful on morning pickups and that their house, once well maintained house, had begun to look shabby.
Gaines phoned a counseling service that specializes in clients with the disease the man had. She visited his home and brought the family brochures detailing the help available to them.
But there is a limit to what she and Fountain can do, Gaines says, and in this case the wife wouldn't allow visits.
The man has not been seen on an URTA bus in a month, and Gaines does not expect to see him again. The UMBC junior has learned that some problems can't be resolved.
Friday was the last day with URTA for Gaines and Fountain, who have finished their semester at UMBC. McGlynn says she will miss the pair but that the experiment has been a success and that she will be asking UMBC for more volunteers.
Pub Date: 12/08/96