Van plan aims to get seniors moving

VHA, volunteer work to aid downtown denizens with transportation issues

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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Lorraine Harrington is shy but cheerful by nature. Sometimes she closes her apartment door and keeps to herself. But she really loves putting on a big smile and hitting the town.

That's not always easy for the 67-year-old resident of Columbia House, a downtown senior-citizen apartment building owned and operated by the Vancouver Housing Authority. It's even less easy for many of her friends, who aren't as healthy and as mobile as she is.

"I am lucky, so far. Most people here have medical problems," she said. "A lot of them can't go anywhere."

So Harrington, president of the Columbia House residents' committee, is gushing with praise for a new transportation program masterminded by VHA and its AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer, Adna Tanjo. So far, the shuttle program is limited to a farmers market trip every other Sunday morning, but Tanjo is hoping it'll blossom next spring into a more frequent service with regular visits to grocery stores, doctor offices, community centers — and even charter outings to fun occasions like the Clark County Fair.

Seven downtown senior-citizen buildings have signed on to a cooperative plan to use and support the service. In addition to three VHA properties -- Columbia House, Van Vista Plaza and Vista Court Senior Apartments -- there are four private partners, too. They are Smith Tower, Kirkland Union Plaza, Knights of Pythias and Lewis and Clark Plaza.

That means a grand total of 770 residents and potential riders, Tanjo said. The program is dubbed "Plan 770."

Tanjo doesn't want to displace C-Tran, the Human Services Council, or any other transit service that's already shuttling senior citizens around downtown, she said. She just wants to fill in some of the blanks they're missing. For example, she said, it takes a hurried transfer between C-Tran buses to get from the west side over to the Marshall and Luepke centers. That's just not possible for a slow-moving senior in a wheelchair or walker.

When she came aboard at VHA last November, Tanjo, 23, was tasked with getting her seniors moving by coordinating services between existing transportation providers. But once she got to know the terrain, she said, she realized that budget realities weren't going to let that happen anytime soon. Public services are being cut these days, not increased — so she was going to have to build a brand new program.

She "borrowed" a VHA van that's assigned to the Van Vista Plaza building, she said. She hunted for resident volunteers who could help with coordination, scheduling and the driving itself -- figuring that these activities would be a bonus for people who are hungry to feel useful.

She lucked out in finding folks like Harrington, who's become a cheerleader for Plan 770, as well as Susan Scharen, a Smith Tower resident and retired truck driver who drove big rigs for 20 years. That's far more challenging than driving the Van Vista van around downtown. Still, Scharen and Tanjo both got some training in operating the van and its wheelchair lift.

The first trial runs went over to the Luepke Center in May. A nominal reservation fee -- $2 -- was charged, mostly to make sure people who signed up really turned up. If they did, they got one of their dollars back. The other buck went to the Loaves & Fishes Center at Luepke.

The only money VHA has spent on the program went for a used Ford van that once made similar senior-citizen rounds for a program in Seattle. Discussions with the seven participating buildings never touched on money, Tanjo said. "In a lot of respects they're already providing basic support," she said.

In other words, Tanjo concluded, "There is no budget." She is in the process of creating a tax-deductible donation account to help grow the program. Call her at 360-993-9578 if you're interested in contributing. Meanwhile, Vancouver-Clark Parks and Recreation is offering a 20 percent discounts for residents of the participating properties.

Now, Plan 770 makes two rounds, at 11 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., on the first and third Sunday of every month, to collect riders from all seven buildings and drop them off at the Vancouver Farmers Market. Visitors have an hour of freedom (but with assistance if needed) to shop, socialize and enjoy the atmosphere. The ride is free, although donations are gratefully accepted.

When the farmers market winds down for the winter, Plan 770 will too -- unless it manages to find enough financial support to grow beyond those biweekly runs. Ultimately, Tanjo and Harrington want Plan 770 to keep moving all year long, making frequent rounds to doctor offices, grocery stores, community centers and anywhere else its users want to go.

"Everybody likes to get out of the house," said Harrington, a former Smokey's Pizza manager who's lived at Columbia House for five years. "Especially for us, who are pretty much apartment bound, it is so important. I've been trying to tell everybody that it is so much fun for all of us to get on that bus together."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.