A charity that provides low-cost transportation in southeastern New Brunswick says it's in dire need of volunteer drivers.
The Urban Rural Rides program operates in Westmorland and Albert counties in areas that don't have any other public transportation.
It's used by seniors, newcomers and low-income families to get to places like the hospital, the food bank or the grocery store, said executive manager Kelly Taylor.
Before the pandemic, it had about 70 volunteer drivers.
Now it's down to about 25.
But while their driver numbers have dwindled, the demand is expanding, ride co-ordinator Annie Beauregard-Choiniere said.
Ideally, she'd love to have 75 drivers to manage the workload.
The way the service works is once people are registered, they can call 48 hours ahead to be matched with a volunteer driver.
The driver "picks you up at your home, takes you to wherever you need to go," then waits to bring you home afterwards, Taylor said.
"There's a great bonding and socialization that happens there in addition to just accessing the programs that they need access to," she said.
Users of the service are charged 25 cents a kilometre.
The "vast majority" of clients, Taylor said, are seniors who are not able to operate a vehicle, either because of medical or financial restraints.
In many cases, clients are isolated because they live alone and don't have family in the area.
Or if they are newcomers, she said, it takes a while to get a driver's licence.
For all of the clients, the ride program offers a "human connection."
"They really need that extra support from community volunteers to help them get to their appointments," Taylor said.
'You're cut off' from majority of services
In many rural communities, there are few or no other transportation options available.
"Essentially, you're cut off from the vast majority of services," said Taylor, "unless you can beg and plead to have a neighbour" drive you into the city.
"It's very dehumanizing."
Many clients say being able to book their own transportation through Urban Rural Rides gives them a sense of independence and control – and in some cases has led to some "beautiful friendships," Taylor said.
Drivers aren't paid for their time, but they do get reimbursed for mileage.
As well, precautions are in place to protect drivers and passengers from COVID-19.
Only one passenger is allowed at a time, said Taylor, and they sit in the back seat on the passenger side.
Drivers are provided with personal protective equipment and cleansing products to clean their vehicles between rides.
Anyone interested in volunteering can call 962-3073 or visit online at urbanruralrides.ca.
If things get "really bad," said Taylor, the group will revert to just food delivery.