New Brunswick

With no transportation, man relieved to see upstart volunteer taxi service

A new volunteer-driven transportation service in Restigouche County is aiming to make a big difference in the lives of seniors and low-income earners.

Restigouche Community Transport reduces barriers for seniors and low-income households

Nash Creek resident Michael Joncas said the new transportation service is a relief for him and his wife. (Colin McPhail/CBC News)

A new volunteer-driven transportation service in Restigouche County is aiming to make a big difference in the lives of seniors and low-income earners.

And Michael Joncas said it already has.

The 59-year-old lives with his wife in Nash Creek, a rural community with few amenities about 30 kilometres southeast of Dalhousie. The couple receive income assistance and can't afford transportation to medical appointments or even to the grocery store.

"The only transportation options we have here is either go somewhere with a neighbour if a neighbour is going or get a relative that lives a few miles away and pay them a little extra to take us to town," Joncas said.

That's where Restigouche Community Transport steps in. The service has volunteers from the county offering their time and vehicle to taxi people in need to essential stops, like to the hospital, doctor's office, pharmacy, grocery store, school and bank.

'A relief off my shoulders'

Joncas said transportation is a barrier in their everyday life. The household receives less than $1,000 a month, and Joncas said a return trip by taxi to Dalhousie costs about $90 — or roughly 10 per cent of the couple's monthly income.

He said a trip into town has to be planned a month in advance.

"I see it as a relief off of my shoulders, and I am 110 per cent in favour of the service," Joncas said. "I hope an abundance of people use it."

Co-ordinator Chantal Bernard says the service is starting slowly to make sure it can accommodate demand in the early-going. (Colin McPhail/CBC News)

Clients are charged a $10 registration fee and 35 cents per kilometre. However, the kilometre fees for clients on social assistance are covered by the Department of Social Development.

Joncas is one of the service's first 27 clients, according to its co-ordinator Chantal Bernard. The service, which began operating in January, mirrors similar programs in Kent County and the Acadian Peninsula.

Bernard said Restigouche is a good fit for such a service, considering the aging region's high poverty rate and sparse population. About 32,000 people live in all of Restigouche County.

"We did some research and we have a lot of people with low [income] in this area," Bernard said.

"It's a lot of rural population, so it's hard, and we don't have any bus going around, or many taxis, either."

She said the service — run by a non-profit under the Economic and Social Inclusion Corp. — will likely see many requests to the Bathurst hospital, mainly for dialysis appointments.

Volunteers needed

While the demand is clear, finding volunteers is the next challenge. Bernard said the service is starting small to make sure it can accommodate the 27 clients, a figure that could "easily" swell to 200 or 300.

So far, 22 people have signed on, and Valerie Irvine was among the first to answer the call.

"I've got free time on my hands, so why not?'" said the Campbellton-based letter carrier.

Irvine said she understands the barrier that lack of transportation presents, having been on income assistance with no vehicle many years ago.

Valerie Irvine was among the first volunteers in the program. (Colin McPhail/CBC News)

"You hate to ask anybody, and when you're on assistance you don't have a lot of money for taxis and it could add up if you've got two or three stops to make," she said.

Irvine expects the program to be popular once word begins to spread and she is encouraging other community members to take part across the region.

"Instead of sitting in front the TV or doing something like that, help somebody out," she said. "It's going to take an hour of your time, but it's going to be well-appreciated by someone else."

Bernard said volunteers need a $2 million insurance policy on their vehicle, though the organization will pay the difference in insurance. Drivers also receive 30 cents a kilometre and $10 for a meal if a trip lasts four hours.