Contributed photo
Ece Kocak, a volunteer driver on Lopez.

IslandRides comes to Orcas after flourishing on San Juan and Lopez

For those who do not drive or have access to a vehicle, getting groceries or making it to work can be daunting.

On San Juan and Lopez, IslandRides has been successfully providing free, on-demand rides daily to those in need. The nonprofit is now working to bring the program to Orcas Island.

“Our target audience is the low-income, senior and disabled but anyone can get a ride. We aren’t restricted by who we can give rides to. If a 20-year-old needs a ride from a remote location to get to work every day, we are going to see how we can make that work,” said board chair and driver Curt VanHyning, who lives on Lopez.

IslandRides launched on San Juan eight years ago after the county authored a 75-page transportation plan that highlighted the need for a non-profit daily driving network to reach specific members of the community. San Juan County is the only one in Washington without a public transportation system yet has the largest percentage of seniors and retired citizens and the greatest disparity in income between wealthy and poor.

The fleet on San Juan started out with a Honda CRV and expanded to include an electric Leaf vehicle, after the lions club donated funds for its purchase. Volunteer drivers are available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. The program began on Lopez this past October with a Leaf given by an off-island donor. Seven volunteers offer rides from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. To schedule a ride on Lopez, call 360-317-3107 or visit https://islandrides.org/. In February, IslandRides surpassed 30,000 trips within the county.

“It’s taken this long for us to make it happen on all three islands,” VanHyning said. “Funding has been non-existent but we’ve cobbled together many local grant sources and direct donations from the community.”

Before the Orcas network can get on the road, IslandRides needs volunteers to sign up and either the donation of an electric car or the funds to purchase one. VanHyning is hoping for a mid-June start date. To find out how you can be part of the project, call Sara Pelfrey at 360-622-2929 or email IslandRidesOrcas@gmail.com or VanHyning at cvanhyning@gmail.com. Donations are being made at www.IslandRides.org or https://OICF.us.

“We will need two vehicles on Orcas eventually,” he said. “It will be harder than the other two islands because of the geography. Orcas Island’s needs are different than the other two and we need to tailor our service to the needs of residents. Also, it will not succeed without an on-island coordinator to do scheduling, staffing choices and some driving.”

On Orcas, there are currently two organizations that offer limited transportation assistance to specific populations. Though these programs were put on hold during the past year due to the pandemic, staff members are working to re-establish services.

The Orcas Senior Center collaborates with San Juan County Senior Services to provide medical transportation. Lahari offers a transportation program, Orcas Door to Door, designed to meet the needs of non-driving, homebound older adults and those with disabilities. The program is available to qualified riders who need assistance to access essential services and social events.

“IslandRides will fill gaps in transportation needs not met by the other programs,” VanHyning said.

Customers can call for a ride during regular service hours or leave a message ahead of time to schedule a specific date and time. VanHyning says the program’s primary destinations are medical appointments, the market, pharmacy and picking up prescriptions or packages. There is no cost for the service although donations are accepted. The average passenger donation last month was around $4. All drivers are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to a customer, “My husband and I are seniors, one with a terminal illness. We are both in wheelchairs and IslandRides has helped us remain in the home we designed and built where we are surrounded by friends and family. The drivers are amazing and treat us like family. IslandRides has been wonderful. The drivers are personable and kind. I have come to depend on them for deliveries several times a week. I wish every community had an IslandRides.”

VanHyning says it’s equally as rewarding for the volunteer drivers.

“That’s how we have gotten the last three drivers I’ve signed up — because of word of mouth from other drivers,” he said. “You have a schedule that is not too demanding, meet people you didn’t know before on the island and can be of service to people who are often under-served.”