Linda Sokolski of Ridgewood was desperate to find an affordable and reliable transportation solution for her elderly mother, who lives in Paramus with a health aide. Her mom wanted to visit her husband and sister, both currently residents of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, on a regular basis. But county transportation for seniors is limited, and taxi services are costly.
“My husband and I work full time and my mother’s aide does not drive. I went to the Jewish Home and they provided me with some options, one of which was ITNNorthJersey, which was very responsive,” said Ms. Sokolski. “I can schedule pickup and return at a certain time. ITN is not free, but it’s affordable. They’re very accommodating and polite, and it’s a real lifesaver for me.”
Wyckoff-based Independent Transportation Network of North Jersey (ITNNorthJersey) is an independent franchise of ITNAmerica, a model where community volunteer drivers transport seniors and people with visual impairment on demand, door to door to any location within a reasonable distance. Members pay an annual $90 fee (scholarships are available) and prepay into an account to cover a small pickup and mileage charge per ride, usually averaging $11. No cash changes hands between driver and passenger.
ITNAmerica has been around for about 20 years, but ITNNorthJersey launched in Bergen County only last month, in large part thanks to $70,000 in seed money from the Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation in Teaneck and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.
“We were trying to set this up for two and a half years, and went to many foundations and civic organizations to ask for their support,” ITNNorthJersey Executive Director John Boswick said. “Finally we were lucky enough to get a meeting with Julia Stoumbos at the Taub Foundation, and then with Lisa Glass and Sheryl Sarin at federation, and within a few weeks we were able to start operating. It was very foresighted of those two organizations to get involved.”
Ms. Glass, managing director of community planning and impact for the federation, said ITNNorthJersey answers a pressing need for local accessible transportation that both the Taub Foundation and the federation had identified previously.
“When we meet with our partner agencies to ask about the impact of our investments with them, we also ask what trends they notice and what’s keeping them up at night,” says Ms. Glass. “Two years ago, everywhere we went they were talking about senior transportation. We have many people aging in place in our catchment area, but it can be very isolating if they can’t get to things. We invest in meal programs for seniors, and our partners said more people would take advantage if they could get there.”
While the Bergen County Community Transportation program for seniors, people with disabilities, veterans, and people with low income operates more than 60 routes by subscription and on demand, it is not adequate to meet the rising need, especially in the northern areas of the county.
“The existing transportation, mainly for medical appointments, is limited,” Ms. Glass notes. “What about going to a grandchild’s play or meeting a friend at the mall? There is such a need for this since New Jersey is so spread out and public transportation is so inadequate. We did research and came across ITN American and met with those trying to make it happen in North Jersey. We learned they needed seed funding to get it going. Our lay people and board voted for it, and ITN also picked up some corporate sponsors.”
Mr. Boswick says the month-old service already has 30 members, mostly in their 80s. About half the rides so far have been for medical appointments, “with the hairdresser a close second,” Mr. Boswick says. “We will transport our members for any purpose. Grocery shopping, visits to family or other social events are also popular reasons to seek a ride.”
The 12 volunteer drivers so far are early retirees or empty-nesters; more are sought. Volunteers earn transportation credits that they may save for their own future use, transfer to an existing member or donate to the Road Scholarship Program for low-income riders. Volunteers also get free annual memberships for themselves and a friend.
“We perform criminal and driving background checks on all our potential volunteers, and repeat it monthly once they are accepted. We give them training on how to interact with the clients and how to offer assistance if needed,” says Mr. Boswick. “We are not a medical transportation service, so we do require that members be self-transferring,” he adds.
If ITNNorthJersey follows the successful example of other franchises, it should become self-sustaining within five years. “This is a startup investment we’re making,” says Ms. Glass. “Other New Jersey federations are watching how this goes, and we hope it will spread across the state. We’re so excited about it; it’s really a game-changer.”
For more information, www.itnnorthjersey.org or call (201) 398-6885.