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Not for Profit: Dial-A-Ride

Jan. 7, 2006 — When you step on a Dial-A-Ride bus, you enter a small community of caring individuals that extends far beyond a bus ride. In a certain sense, the ride is the tip of the iceberg, a door into a world of help.
The multifaceted service even plays a significant role in the tourism industry. "We are a part of the community," says Rosemary J. Sumas, Dial-A-Ride executive director. "It's not just transportation from point A to point B; it's never that simple."
"For instance," she says, "to illustrate a common situation, Meals on Wheels delivers at a certain time each day to a client, but she cannot be there at that time because she is at the hospital clinic. We ask Meals on Wheels to drop off the meal at our office, and we keep it warm for her until we pick her up."
That's one of the easy ones. The service has regular clients who travel to doctors' appointments, shopping, or whatever else they need. Of the total clients using the services, 57 percent are female and 43 percent male. Disabled clients make up 53 percent of the service's population, and many elderly and disabled are included in this percentage. Their ages range from nine years to 103. All disabled persons and senior citizens 62 years and over are eligible for the service.
After picking up most of their morning clients, on cruise ship days the buses switch roles to become tourism ambassadors. They pick up groups at the John E. McCleverty Welcome Center at the Havensight dock. "We take groups to the beach, a helicopter tour, or even on a dive,"
Sumas says. "Our aim is to provide experiences so the ship visitors will return as overnight guests. And many do."
The Dial-A-Ride office is located in the Knud Hansen complex in space donated by the local government for in-kind services. It is a drab affair from the outside. Once inside, however, that impression quickly gets dispelled. The office lights up with the warmth and the spirit of the small staff of six — drivers, office and administrative staff.
When you call, you get a friendly voice on the phone, anxious to help you. It is not a government office. It's a private not-for-profit, though it is supplemented with some government funds. It is run by a voluntary seven-member rotating board of directors,
Merriss S. Nisbett, administrative assistant, sits in the outer office. Coney Edinborough, a driver now for about a year and a half, sits at a computer with her daughter, Delshya, a volunteer, looking on. Delshya, 19, is earning her GED, picking up some work experience in the office and helping out on the buses. The other drivers are Janet Gumbs and senior driver Edwin Joseph, with 14 years on the job.
Frank Meyers is the agency dispatcher. He began in 1989 as a volunteer, becoming an employee s in 1991. The job requires special skills, working around three buses picking up a variety of people with a variety of needs. And sometimes clients can be difficult.
"People will say to Frank, 'You don't know what it's like,' and he will say, 'Yes, I do,'" Sumas says. Meyers had a bicycle accident when he was a youngster, she says, leaving him with a spinal
injury, requiring him to use crutches. Meyers sits at his desk, deep in his work. Though open and friendly, he is humble about his skills, preferring not to elaborate about his job.
The scheduling cannot be set in stone.
"We have to allow for what we call 'pop-ups'," Sumas explains. "We know some things will change; it varies from day to day. When cruise ships are in, we try to get our regular customers situated in the morning, and then we pick up the tourists about 10 a.m., when they get off the ship. They may want to go to the beach, or do a helicopter tour, or even go on a dive. The main thing is to get them to like the island, so next time they will stay over."
The agency is funded from V.I. government grants, United Way and the private sector. Sumas cannot say enough good about United Way. Mismanagement of grants by the Public Works Department almost shut the agency down in 1999. (See "Dial-A-Ride Suffering From Grant Mismanagement.")
"If it weren't for United Way," Sumas says, "we would have had to close, with the budget cuts. United Way almost doubled our allotment. Texaco Caribbean at the time helped with fuel costs, and the Texas Society has been great with donations. And we have the money from user fees."
The Specialized Accessible Transportation user fees are based on one-half of taxi fare. Caregivers traveling with a client are not charged.
"Human Services has been extremely good to us and provided us with buses," Sumas says. "The buses are ours, but Human Services provided the licenses. We have three operational buses."
Sumas moved here from New Orleans in 1991, and worked at other jobs for a few years, eventually joining the Dial-A-Ride board, and then becoming an employee. "I wanted to be involved in something that gives to the community," she says.
St. Thomas reminds her of home: "Everyone says good morning and hello, just like the streets of New Orleans. People are warm, and there's a sense of community. I was looking for a change of scenery when I moved — something different, but not too different."
The agency also picks up tourists at the airport, or residents who are traveling.
"All the locals have to do is tell us their flight times, and we can deliver them and pick them up, or we can pick up relatives arriving with wheelchair or disabled needs," Sumas says. "Visitors just have to notify us, and tell us if they need wheelchair assistance, and we will pick them up at the airport and take them to their hotels. We have a lot of repeat visitors."
The agency has 900 registered clients, a figure that at first seems startling. However, Sumas says that includes lifetime members, ones from the states or Puerto Rico, St. Croix and St. John. "All over the world, really," she says. "We work with local travel agents."
The agency provides services for all nursing and senior facilities on the island. Visitors pay a lifetime registration fee of $30, which includes their first airport pickup and return. Locals do not pay the fee.
Clients can call for reservations a month in advance.
"They have an hour ahead of time to cancel the reservation so they don't get charged for it," Sumas says. "Sometimes people aren't feeling well and can't go to their appointments, which is one reason we have the 'pop-ups' timed into the scheduling."
Dial-A-Ride started in 1985 as a program under the V.I. Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities. "We celebrated our 20th anniversary in 2005," Sumas says, "and Ideta Davis, our board president said to me, 'It's come full circle now,' with my being from New Orleans."
In 1981 a group of concerned citizens founded the coalition. They attending a conference in New Orleans, after which they filed for articles of incorporation. In 1983 the coalition became a reality.
Other services the agency provides include free planning and time management; referrals to other agencies; transportation to the polls for registered voters; planning and time management with travel agents; free vacation planning for elderly and disabled visitors; and information on accessibility in St. Thomas for elderly and disabled visitors, tour and travel agents.
The agency can be reached at 776-1277, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The hours of operation are 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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