New program to help islanders receive transportation to off-island rehab centers

When an addict makes the decision to seek help, “what comes next?” is a big question.

In the San Juans, there are organizations in place to guide those in need, but if treatment at a mainland facility is needed, that’s often a significant challenge.

“In just the past four months, 70 percent of our fellow community members who were ready for treatment didn’t get it because timely and appropriate transportation couldn’t be arranged,” said James Connell, who helped found Recovery in Community, which pairs trained advocates with clients who are seeking sobriety. “It’s a real, documented problem and we’re losing folks who could be getting better.”

Since its launch in August 2019, Orcas-based RIC ( has provided support to nearly 30 islanders in partnership with community organizations. RIC is now overseeing a county-wide collaboration called Recovery Rides with Compass Health on San Juan Island and the islands’ three community resource centers. The program will match drivers and riders with clients who need transportation to a treatment facility, which can be as far north as Bellingham and far south as Everett. The trip involves several transitions: from home to the ferry; ferry to taxi; taxi to the facility and then 3o to 90 days later, the same trip in reverse.

“I’ve known of two people getting to the ferry to head off-island for treatment, and they’ve never been seen or heard from again,” Connell said. “We’ve got to do better than a 70 percent loss rate.”

Timing is also critical, explained Connell. When a bed is secured for a client, they often need to arrive at the facility the following day, or the spot is given to someone else.

“Compass Health provides outpatient substance use disorder services. Some of the clients we assess for treatment need inpatient programs, which means we refer them to treatment centers on the mainland. Recovery Rides allows them to get not only the transportation they need but also accompaniment — someone who can ride along with them to encourage and support them on their journey to rehab and recovery,” said Anthony Terndrup, Compass Health Outpatient Program Manager for San Juan County.

How it works

There are three elements to the program: volunteers who drive clients to an island ferry terminal; paid “riders” who accompany clients to and from the treatment facility; and off-island drivers, generally a contracted commercial vendor such as a taxi. Based on previous years’ numbers, it is estimated that 45 islanders need transport annually to or from a mainland facility.

RIC is implementing a networking strategy to identify and then recruit, train and schedule drivers and riders to sign up on San Juan, Orcas and Lopez. Organizers say “reliable, accompanied transportation” to and from treatment will begin Sept. 1. The pilot period will run through December. Megan Neal has been hired as the part-time coordinator for the project. For more information about participating, email

Connell quickly raised $5,000 to start Recovery Rides from many of the same donors who helped launch RIC. That seed money will last for the first few months; fundraising for a full year ($36,000) is happening now. To donate, visit or mail a check to Orcas Community Resource Center, 374 N Beach Rd, Eastsound, WA 98245 (write For Recovery Rides/RIC).

Once the program commences, Compass Health, the resource centers and RIC will refer clients to Recovery Rides. San Juan County and Compass will contribute to the partial reimbursement of transportation costs from designated funds.

On-island volunteer drivers will be gifted $50 to donate to a chosen charity while riders will be given a $200-$400 stipend depending on how much time is spent with the client. Riders and drivers must be 18 and over and will have their backgrounds checked. Compass Health and RIC will administer a 90-minute training session and Compass professionals will also be on-call for the duration of the trip in case more support is needed. All financial details will be handled by Recovery Rides, including ferry tickets, taxi rides and even a hotel if the rider cannot get home in one day.

Those who sign on will be required to commit to at least one specific day per month. There will be a “primary” and “secondary” driver or rider (in the event that the primary is not available), and participants can be matched by gender.

Connell and others involved with the project say the experience can be deeply moving “when we assist a community member to change their life for the better and see first-hand that addiction knows no socio-economic bounds.”

“I think it will be really enlightening for people,” Neal said.

Added Connell: “Recovery Rides will have community impact and help to destigmatize those who face the challenges of addiction.”