"We will make it through together"

There is pride in Brandi Pool’s voice when she talks about her work as a Paratransit Van Operator for Spokane Transit. She and her fellow van operators care deeply about their passengers and it shows. Of course, their concern for STA’s most vulnerable customers has only intensified since the outbreak of COVID-19.

“We definitely look out for the safety of our passengers and employees,” Pool said. “We are supplied with hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves, and we thoroughly sanitize the vans before we pick up passengers and again after we drop them off at their destinations.” 

To comply with social distancing standards, STA suspended its regular shared-rides practice on Paratransit vans. Now, only the van operator, passenger, and possibly their companion or caregiver, are allowed onboard for any given trip. Additionally, customers are made aware of the importance of only scheduling essential trips such as to work, medical appointments, grocery stores and pharmacies.

An inevitable outcome of Governor Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy executive order is that Paratransit ridership has declined by 79%.

Only a few months ago, an average of 1,468 daily rides were provided. Today that number has dropped to 302. People are staying safe by staying home. It’s a stressful time for everyone, but for many of Pool’s customers, the isolation is the hardest part.

“I’m staying positive and upbeat to help keep my customers in good spirits with everything that’s going on,” she said. “I’m looking forward to being able to help them reconnect with their friends and family.”

STA has found new and creative ways for the Paratransit team to continue supporting the community.

A free temporary program, called “Rides for Seniors”, was met with immediate success and has only grown in popularity as people age 60+ become aware of its availability. Since its launch on March 26, Paratransit has provided 603 rides for seniors, many of whom can no longer rely on family members to drive them, due to their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus to their elderly loved ones.

“Our senior riders are happy that somebody is there to help them get where they need to go. If it wasn’t for STA Paratransit, some of these people wouldn’t even be able to get their groceries,” Pool said. “You never realize how much impact you have on people’s lives until you start hearing their stories.”

STA also teamed up with Meals on Wheels to help deliver meals to a growing number of homebound individuals and those affected by closed community centers and other food services. Since they began volunteering in late March, Paratransit van operators have delivered 13,603 meals.

Second Harvest has received assistance from Paratransit van operators as well. They began picking up boxes at grocery stores and delivering them to the Second Harvest food packing facility in March. But recently, after a large supply of boxes was donated, they were able to start picking up and delivering packed food boxes to those in need.

“We are honored to have been called upon to serve the community in new ways, said Pool’s manager, Janet Stowe. “The result has been the silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud caused by the pandemic.”

As things slowly return to normal, Pool looks forward to seeing many of her regular customers again and hopes they will continue their good safety practices to help protect themselves and others from all airborne illnesses.

“Thank you for trusting us to take you where you need to go during this challenging time,” Pool said. “We will make it through together.”

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