Giving seniors a lift

The Baltimore Sun

Life in America has come full circle for Paul Bikoi.

When Bikoi immigrated to Columbia from Cameroon 12 years ago, he turned to a county-based nonprofit business for interpretation and counseling assistance. Now, he helps translate documents for French-speaking immigrants at that same organization, thanks in part to the volunteer drivers who get him there.

Neighbor Ride, a low-cost transportation service for residents 60 and older, picks up Bikoi at his home three days a week and takes him to the Foreign-born Information and Referral Network, an immigration counseling service on Harpers Farm Road. The 69-year-old walks with a cane and is no longer able to drive.

A new program offering half-price fares to seniors who use the transportation service to go to a volunteer activity is proving a boon for passengers such as Bikoi, who has volunteered at FIRN on and off since shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2002.

Neighbor Ride and the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County, a clearinghouse that matches volunteers to opportunities, have teamed up to make voluntarism more affordable through the Senior Volunteer Initiative. For as little as $3, seniors can ride round-trip.

"It's our intent to make sure that seniors who have transportation challenges are able to engage in volunteer activities," said Mickey Gomez, executive director of the Volunteer Center.

The reduced rates began Oct. 1 and will remain in effect through the end of the year, thanks to a contribution from AscendOne Corp., a Columbia-based company that helps consumers reduce credit card debt.

"We are really, really big on volunteering here," said Joseph Murray, director of community relations for AscendOne. "It's important to us that everyone who wants to volunteer be able to do so."

The AscendOne EDGE Fund, which is overseen by employees, gave Neighbor Ride $500 in seed money, said Murray, who is on the board of the Volunteer Center.

"If this is wildly successful, then it is our hope to continue this initiative indefinitely with financial support from the community," said Colleen Konstanzer, Neighbor Ride's community outreach coordinator.

Neighbor Ride's volunteer drivers use their personal vehicles to transport older adult passengers who set up a ride. While many users have medical appointments, other riders seek transportation to social or religious events or to a shopping center.

Fares are prepaid to the organization, which uses them to fund operations and in some cases reimburse drivers. Some riders are eligible to be transported free of charge.

Between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008, nearly 6,000 rides totaling 62,000 miles were completed by 175 volunteers who contributed more than 7,000 hours of their time, Konstanzer said.

The initiative comes on the heels of a price increase that went into effect June 1. For the first time since its inception in 2004, Neighbor Ride raised fares, though the fee for a ride within the same ZIP code in Howard County remains unchanged at $6.

A ride to a neighboring ZIP code within the county was increased from $8 to $9 and a ride anywhere within the county costs $12, up from $10. Costs are per ride, not per passenger, as long as the pickup, drop-off and destination are the same for all riders, Konstanzer said.

The fee schedule, which is available on Neighbor Ride's Web site, is being cut in half for this initiative.

"We always have opportunities that are in need of volunteers," Gomez said. "People can be change agents, and we hope this program will encourage new partnerships."

Bikoi said he is grateful for the opportunity to make a difference.

"This work helps me to better my English and to not forget my French," said Bikoi, who is now paid by the state to be a translator at FIRN, which acts as the host agency.

Bikoi used FIRN's services to help several of his eight children after they immigrated to Central Maryland, he said.

"I am happy to get a ride and to have this job helping other immigrants," he said.

Persons interested in participating in the Senior Volunteer Initiative may contact Neighbor Ride by calling 410-884-RIDE (7433) or visiting For information on volunteer opportunities, call the Volunteer Center Serving Howard County at 410-715-3172.

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