TUPELO – "Wanted: Drivers to take senior citizens to essential appointments. Flexible hours. No pay. No benefits. Huge rewards."
That's what an ad for the Shepherd's Center of Greater Tupelo might say.
The interfaith, not-for-profit organization had been successfully operating in Lee County for almost 30 years, with dozens of volunteers driving older adults to medical appointments, therapy sessions, the pharmacy, the grocery store, the bank.
And then the pandemic hit in early 2020.
"Pre-COVID, Shepherd's Center was all guns-a-blazing, but since COVID, our volunteer drivers have drastically dropped off, yet our requests have continued to grow," said Kathryn Barrow, a volunteer driver. "We are getting to the point of desperation."
In 2019, Shepherd's Center had 54 volunteer drivers who completed 2,200 driving requests, Barrow said. In 2022, those numbers had dropped to 26 volunteer drivers completing 834 driving requests.
"This drastic decrease is solely based on the reduction of volunteer drivers," she said. "It's obvious that the community needs the Shepherd’s Center to continue, but we need help to get the word out to boost our volunteer drivers, or we are at risk of folding."
Shepherd's Center of Greater Tupelo, which was started in 1991, is affiliated with Shepherd's Center of America, said Kirk Biddle, a volunteer driver and former director of the group. It's one of 55 chapters in the country and the only one in Mississippi.
"Our volunteers have probably dropped off 50%," Biddle said. "After COVID, they never came back. The problem is, there are a lot of rides we can't fill, which breaks our heart. We know the need is there."
Becoming a volunteer is easy, Biddle said. Drivers need a valid driver's license and proof of car insurance and must be in reasonably good physical shape so they can help seniors in and out of vehicles.
Originally, volunteer drivers were seniors themselves, because that was one of the cornerstones of the organization – seniors helping seniors.
"I started volunteering in 2012 after I retired from Lane," Biddle said. "I was having trouble adjusting to not going to work. First thing you know, you've done all the honey-do things on the list, and there's nothing good on daytime TV. I was climbing the walls."
Biddle began driving for Shepherd's Center, ferrying clients to and from appointments.
"Retirees now don't seem to be as focused on outreach to others," said Biddle, 76. "They don't have that spiritual connection we Boomers were raised on. I have met some characters, some wonderful people. It does as much for me as it does for them. It's what we're taught to do as Christians."
As the organization tries to recruit more drivers, it has stopped putting an age requirement on volunteers.
"We're expanding our field to anyone who wants to volunteer," Biddle said. "There might be a housewife who could drive after they've dropped the kids off at school and before they pick them back up. There may be men doing shift work at night who might have time to volunteer during the day when doctors' offices are open."
Volunteers can drive as little or as often as they like, said Cindy Butler, who coordinates clients' needs with volunteer drivers. She works out of an office at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo.
"I don't put any parameters on drivers," Butler said. "I have eight volunteers I can rely on who are always available. Another six volunteer when they can."
But even that hard-core group can't be everything to everybody.
"We get requests to drive clients to 13 to 15 appointments per week," she said. "In February, there were nine abandoned appointments because no driver was available."
Shepherd's Center uses a software program called Assisted Rides. Volunteers can log in and see clients' requests and sign up for a request that works with their schedules.
"I may drop somebody at a doctor's appointment, go run a few errands, and then go back and pick them up," said Barrow, who's been driving for about two years. "Sometimes, I might stay with them, but you don't have to. They always have our phone number so they can call when they're done. The car time with these precious people has God's hand all over it."
On Wednesday, volunteer driver Teresa Biddle picked up Billie Baum from Traceway Manor to take her to an appointment at Endocrinology Consultants. Biddle helped Baum into her SUV, and the two chatted as they drove across town.
"We talk about the weather, people we have in common," said Baum, 84. "I enjoy everybody that's ever taken me anywhere. They always say, when we're leaving the appointment, 'Is there any other place you need to go?' Usually there's not, but I'm not afraid to ask anymore."
Biddle, 74, started driving for Shepherd's Center in 2018, because her husband was so involved with the group.
"I had retired from the Good Samaritan Free Clinic, and I thought this was something I could do," Teresa Biddle said. "My mother was at Traceway for 17 years, and I was her caregiver. I saw how important transportation was to her. I try to drive clients two to three times a month. It gets me out of the house. And it gives me a purpose in life."
Barrow said when she's driving a client, she's not just helping that client – she's often also helping the clients' family.
"Some of these people don't have any family here, and they can't afford to take a taxi every time they need to go to the doctor," she said. "But even those with family here – sometimes family needs a break. We're helping out the elder, but sometimes we're also helping out the caregiver. Some of these clients need to go to therapy three times a week."
Butler, 74, said when she moved to Tupelo in March 2020 – at the start of COVID – she only knew one person in town. She accepted the part-time job as Shepherd's Center coordinator for a little extra income, but also so she could meet more people in the community. Soon after she came on board, she found herself being a volunteer driver.
"It's so gratifying," she said. "I'm getting up in age, and I'm thankful I'm able to drive and walk and see. I think the able-bodied need to be there to help others. It's a God thing."
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