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Leaving the driving -- and more -- to CountyRide; Providing transportation to the elderly, disabled


Curtis Lawson is not your typical bus driver. He doesn't have a regular route, he knows all his riders by name and often drives 40 miles to pick up just one passenger.

Lawson drives for CountyRide, transporting senior citizens and the disabled throughout Baltimore County, a sprawling suburb with the state's largest elderly population.

For Lawson and other CountyRide drivers, their jobs are a lot more than driving a bus.

"If somebody's being abused at home, they report it. They have come to houses where people are dead, they have found people on the floor after a fall," said Rosalie Coffman, the program's manager.

CountyRide was founded 24 years ago by the Baltimore County Department of Aging, with two used station wagons and $53,000. Today, with a $1.3 million budget, it has 22 wheelchair-equipped vans that make nearly 50,000 trips a year.

The bus system's daily schedule is computerized, with all pickups by appointment only. Priority is given to passengers who need to keep medical appointments.

Few alternatives

To Arnold J. Eppel, deputy director of the Department of Aging, the CountyRide program is one of the most important services his agency can offer to the elderly.

"There is a generation gap of 85-year-old women who never drove. When their husbands pass away, they are dependent on their elderly children, who are now 60," he said.

Couple that problem with frequent doctors' appointments, and you have a growing transportation crisis in a county with limited public transportation for many of its 138,000 elderly residents, said Eppel.

"We go to work, they go to see doctors. They make a livelihood of going to doctors," said Eppel. "We don't live in Manhattan. We live in the suburbs. You have to drive everywhere."

With private transportation prohibitively expensive for some people, CountyRide, says Eppel, "is here for people who fall through the cracks."

The program charges as little as $2.50 a ride no matter the distance. "We had a man in a wheelchair who lived at Maryland Line. He had to go to Fort Howard," said Rosalie Coffman, manager of CountyRide.

She noted that CountyRide caters to patients who are sent by their health maintenance organizations to doctors' offices far from their homes.

The service also takes passengers to hospitals throughout the county, as well as the city.

'Twenty grandmothers'

The elderly "adopt our drivers, so each driver has 20 grandmothers," says L. Jeanne Bowman, fleet supervisor for the program, who loves to listen to senior citizens' life stories.

"General Patton's secretary [rode] with us for years, and she had more stories than anybody," she said.

Lawson takes his job seriously. He picks up his passengers at their doors and has become an expert in maneuvering any brand of wheelchair. Last year, he handled 513 wheelchairs -- more than any other driver -- and was named the county's Driver of the Year.

A former truck driver, he finds his current job "more rewarding. I feel like I'm giving something back to the community. I'm going to be elderly one day, too," said Lawson, 55.

He calls some of his passengers "my girls," finds their minds "very sharp" and occasionally plays cards with them at the Randallstown senior center during his lunch break.

One recent cloudy morning after rush hour, Lawson pulled his bus up to Sallie Allen's new Randallstown home, built to accommodate the electric scooter she uses because of multiple sclerosis.

Her destination was a Kernan Hospital day care program for people with MS. She and Lawson spoke little that morning as he strapped her chair tightly to the floor of the van and headed down winding back roads to the Woodlawn hospital.

Allen said she is grateful for the service because she can't drive anymore. CountyRide, she said, is the next best thing.

"And they're always on time," she said.

Information about CountyRide: 410-887-2080.

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