Every Thursday, Mildred Jones of Columbia has a standing appointment with Jesus. She brings him into the lives of inmates at the Howard County Detention Center through her correspondence work for the Christian Jail Ministry at Bethel Baptist Church on Montgomery Road in Ellicott City.
Jones, who is 74 and afraid to drive, counts on Neighbor Ride to get her to the church each week at 8 a.m. so she can help grade Bible lessons offered by mail to inmates at the Jessup facility.
"I wouldn't be able to volunteer if it weren't for Neighbor Ride's wonderful volunteers," said Jones. "Their drivers have kept me going and kept me productive."
Preventing the isolation that often troubles senior citizens when they are no longer able to drive is the main mission of the supplemental transportation service for county residents ages 60 or older, said Judy Pittman, one of the founders.
Neighbor Ride, which marks its third anniversary tomorrow, has met with so much demand that organizers are experiencing growing pains.
"We had a gut feeling that we would be a hit - we just had no idea how quickly," Pittman said of the popular service, which she said is one of two such programs in the state.
Anne Arundel County provides a similar service to its residents through an umbrella organization called Partners in Care. Frederick, Harford and Worchester counties have inquired into Neighbor Ride's formula for success, she added.
From 12 rides in its first two weeks of operation to 5,700 since its inception "we have exceeded everyone's wildest expectations," said Executive Director Brad Closs, who has been on board since March 1. "We provided more rides in our third year than we did in the first two combined."
While pleased with the growing popularity, Pittman emphasizes that Neighbor Ride does not compete with other modes of transportation but works in conjunction with county services such as Howard Transit, which operates a curb-to-curb program called HT Ride for seniors and disabled passengers of any age.
"If we can't get you where you want to go, we will recommend an alternative," Closs said.
Only two of the 269 requests that came in to Neighbor Ride during September were turned down, he said, giving the service a 94 percent completion rate.
"This is one huge juggling act," said Pittman of the ride coordinators' job of pairing passengers and drivers, and it is one that Closs is working to streamline through a major upgrade of the scheduling software program.
Keeping the daily coordination running smoothly is volunteer Don Herman. He comes to the Columbia office on Centre Park Drive from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. every weekday to organize telephone and e-mail messages left by drivers regarding passenger pickup, schedule changes and the like.
"Don is the glue that holds everything together," said Closs. "Most of our volunteers give one day a week, but Don's continuity keeps us going."
Herman, who retired in 1993, said he had some extra time on his hands when he learned of Neighbor Ride at the county's Senior Expo in 2005. "It seemed like a valuable way to make a difference," he said.
What draws people to volunteer with Neighbor Ride is "being able to make a one-on-one connection," said Jean Berulis, 83, who is a ride coordinator and passenger.
"I worked as a loan officer for 40 years before retiring, and I knew I would miss dealing with people," she said. "Working here one day a week is perfect for me."
Sue Appletree, a retired teacher, was a ride coordinator first and then also became a driver.
"When you get to chatting with these folks on the phone, you develop friendships," Appletree said. "So I thought, 'Why not offer to drive and meet some of them face to face?' It's great being able to volunteer to do something with such a big payoff."
Though the 133 drivers and 12 ride coordinators are unpaid volunteers, there is a fee schedule for most passengers. Low-income seniors can qualify for assistance through the county Office on Aging.
Rides within the county cost $6 to $10, while a trip into Baltimore or Washington will run $30. This income, which helps offset administrative costs, is 18 percent of the money required to operate Neighbor Ride, Closs said.
"It is unheard of for a nonprofit agency as young as ours to have never been in the red," Pittman said. "That doesn't mean we're rich, though; we are always on the lookout for funding."
Recently, it was one of four organizations to be awarded $4,000 annually for four years by the Columbia Foundation in honor of the city's 40th anniversary.
Neighbor Ride is always looking for volunteer drivers.
"I can fit our need for drivers into any conversation," Pittman said. "Our very existence depends on these drivers, so I am merciless about recruiting."
She said she and volunteer coordinator Rosemary Noble follow the three R's of voluntarism religiously - recruit, retain and recognize. "Our retention rate is high - 87 percent - but we are receiving more and more transportation requests," Pittman said. "We need all the drivers we can get."
What keeps volunteers returning is the opportunity to give whatever hours they can manage in exchange for a meaningful, human experience, Pittman said.
"So many people tell me they're sick of sitting on a committee or stuffing envelopes," she said.
Said Noble: "If you work as a driver or ride coordinator, at the end of the day you will have the satisfaction of knowing you personally made a difference in someone's life. Our goal is to never reject a request for a ride due to the lack of a driver."
For information on volunteering or using the service, call 410-884-RIDE or visit the organization's Web site at www.neighborride.org. The next orientation sessions are scheduled at noon Dec. 7 and at 7 p.m. Dec. 12.