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Not just a bus - it’s independence

Para-transit bus service helps seniors maintain their autonomy

Posted: December 6, 2009 10:16 p.m.
Updated: December 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Brill, left, secures Karen Frisch's wheelchair for the bus ride to her doctor's appointment.

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Lorraine Jackson, 80, had to stop driving seven years ago due to a heart attack. Her sons, both police officers, were too concerned to let Jackson get behind the wheel again.

"They didn't want me to end up like some of the mothers they've seen," she said.

Since her boys were too busy to taxi their mother around themselves, Jackson instead hopped on the para-transit bus service provided by the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center. Approximately twice a week, Jackson gets door-to-door service to run errands around town from her home at Bouquet Canyon Senior Apartments. The cost is 50 cents each way or $1 per round-trip.

"I couldn't live without it," Jackson said.

Even better, it's a service with a smile, provided by senior center transportation coordinator Roxanne Brill, who's been driving the bus for eighteen months.

"I love my job," Brill said.

The perky brunette picks up approximately 30-60 passengers every weekday along her dedicated route of senior apartments, which includes Bouquet Canyon in Saugus, Fountain Glen in Valencia and Canyon Club in Canyon Country.

"Where are you going, honey?" Brill asked Karen Frisch after strapping the wheelchair-bound senior safely in place toward the back of the bus.

Today, it's a doctor's appointment for Frisch, 76, who's been using the para-transit service for four months after transitioning to a wheelchair due to congestive heart failure and spinal stenosis. She sold her trusty Honda shortly beforehand.

"I didn't feel confident driving anymore and I knew this service was available," Frisch said. "I miss driving horribly, I miss the independence. The bus helps me feel more independent again. I would really be lost without it."

As the bus turns a corner, Brill assured Frisch, who is still getting used to her wheelchair. "You're OK, Karen. You're all tightened up," she said.

Frisch smiled.

"At $1, this is the best deal in town," she said. "I could take the regular bus, but this is my bus and Roxanne is my person."

Brill is one of five drivers who service senior living apartments in the Santa Clarita Valley. The buses operate Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., most often shuttling passengers to medical appointments, grocery shopping, and other errands.

According to Brad Behrens, executive director of the senior center, approximately 350-400 seniors take advantage of the para-transit bus service each day.

While funding has been cut for several programs at the center due to recessionary influences such as decreasing grants, funding, and donations, the bus service is not in any danger, as Behrens illustrated.

"Transportation is one program that is quite viable for us. The only issue we'll be looking at is the cost of vehicle replacement over time," he said. "Transportation is one of those activities of daily life that is essential to seniors. Since we have so many thousands of seniors aging in place and having to give up cars, it makes it more essential every year."

On some weekends, the buses head out for special events such as swap meets, restaurants or trips to the beach in the summertime. (When not in service, the buses are occasionally lent out to other area nonprofits to help shuttle people attending fundraising events.)

Passengers are allowed to bring two bags or one small cart to haul back any purchases on the bus, which is good on this day, when Brill took a group of 11 to the 99 Cents Only Store in Newhall for a shopping trip.

Upon pickup, Brill quickly arose from the driver's seat to help her passengers find a spot for their bags and get settled for the ride home.

"I really appreciate the bus and Roxanne," said Elizabeth Spennenger, 81. "Otherwise I would have to carry everything home and my packages are heavy. Or wait for the regular bus, but the air is so polluted whenever they come by."

Unlike most of her fellow seniors, Spennenger never drove. That task fell to her husband, who passed away three years ago. She now takes the bus weekly to shop for groceries.

For Pat Baker, 70, losing the ability to drive 10 years ago was just one of the setbacks of aging.

"There's a kind of role reversal when you're a senior, you become like a kid again. You get turned around or forget things.

Roxanne's our lifeline," said Baker. "We're like children on the bus, we squabble, we joke, but we love each other and Roxy is like our mom."

Overhearing the comment, Brill responded.

"These are my children," she said, laughing.

"We love you," someone cried out from the back of the bus as the entire group broke into applause for their driver.

For more information on the para-transit bus services provided by the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center, call (661) 259-9444 or visit www.scvsc.org.

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