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Transportation Network Helps Elderly Mainers Get Around and Stay Connected

Tom Porter
Independent Transportation Network founder Katherine Freund.

PORTLAND, Maine - Spurred on by a traumatic personal experience, Katherine Freund of Portland has spent the last two decades helping the elderly and visually impaired access what she calls "dignified transportation."

Next week she'll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Independent Transportation Network that she created.

ITN provides rides to seniors who no longer feel safe behind the wheel. Over the years, the network has grown from a local operation to one that helps thousands of people in 21 states. But it's not growing fast enough to meet the needs of a rapidly aging population.

It's 1:30 on a weekday afternoon in Westbrook and 86-year-old Rose Novick is getting a ride home from the furniture store where she works.

Tom Porter: "Hello there."

Rose Novick: "Hi."

Tom Porter: "You've just been working, have you?"

Rose Novick: "Yes, I work here, and I'll put my belt on which is what we always do. There, got it."

For a small fee, Novick gets driven the five miles to and from work everyday, courtesy of ITN America. She started using the service about a year ago after a traffic accident left her without a car. "About a 100 feet from my house, and the guy went through a red light and demolished my car. So I lost my car. I was in the hospital for about three weeks."

After that, she decided it was time to stop driving herself, and at the suggestion of her family signed up with ITN America, which she describes as a friendly, affordable, and reliable service. "They're usually there either on time or a few minutes early, so I'm always on time."

Tom Porter: "It would be very hard without ITN for you, wouldn't it? You wouldn't really be able to do your job."

Rose Novick:  "No, because where I live there's a bus on either end, but it's too far for me to walk. I would have to take a walker, and take the walker on the bus."

Tom Porter: "And you'd have to get a taxi everyday."

Rose Novick: "That would be too expensive - I checked that."

"There are lots of social issues that we don't know how to fix, but this one we absolutely know the answer, and the answer very, very simply, is that older people need a ride," says ITN America founder and President Katherine Freund. "And so, figuring out how to put that together, how to make sure an older person who needs to limit or stop driving has a way to maintain their quality of life, stay in their home, be able to come and go with some independence and some dignity. That's the answer."

Freund realized through personal experience the importance of solving the transportation problems facing older Americans. And it was the sort of personal experience that every parent dreads. "I guess everybody gets involved in an issue because it affects their life in some way," she says.

Credit Tom Porter / MPBN
ITN founder Katherine Freund, with her son Ryan.

In 1988, Freund's three-year-old son Ryan was run over by an 84-year-old driver. Freund didn't blame the man behind the wheel, but she made it her mission to tackle the challenge facing elderly drivers. "It changed my life. It certainly changed his life, although it probably changed my life a lot more."

Ryan was lucky to survive the accident. He suffered severe head injuries and was in a coma for several days. Today, Ryan Walsh is a healthy and successful 30-year-old business executive. "I'm very proud of my mother for taking what was a personal tragedy for me and turning it into a solution that helps others," he says.

In addition to providing direct support to seniors, ITN also provides help to younger family members, many of whom are part of the so-called "sandwich" generation, caught between the demands of caring for both their children and their ailing parents, all the while holding down a full-time job.

Portland business-owner Sam Novick is Rose Novick's son. "Her quality of life would have greatly changed because I would not have been able to provide her with 'to-and-from' transportation to work every day," he says. "I can't speak highly enough of the service it provides for both the parent and the child."

Over the years, ITN America has grown to serve about 12,000 people in 27 communities across 21 states. But founder Katherine Freund says with 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, there's still a huge need out there. "And there are people all over the United States outliving their ability to drive and stuck in their houses, or driving when they shouldn't and hurting themselves and other people."

ITN America couldn't operate without assistance from hundreds of volunteer drivers. Former banking executive David Chute of Portland is one of them. He's been driving for ITN since he retired seven years ago. He helps out two days a week, driving about 100 miles. Over the years he estimates that he's served close to 1,000 customers. "And a lot of them need a hand because they're really lame and can't see very well," he says. "So you need to take them arm-in-arm, hand-in-hand."

AT 72, Chute understands how important it is for his aging customers to be independent and remain connected to the outside world.  "Well, I just get to meet all these people, and help them sometimes. Once in a while we can spot somebody that needs more help, so we'll call up dispatcher and they'll contact the contact person and let them know what the problem is."

Chute recalls one occasion when the elderly woman he went to collect from a retirement home was not waiting for him. Concerned, he went to investigate and found out she had accidently overdosed on her medication and was in urgent need of medical help.

As a volunteer, Chute gets reimbursed for the miles he drives, but like many other drivers, he chooses to be paid in ITN credits - which can be used to pay for the service. Some of them he donates to the company, and some he puts into an account of his own, in case one day he should need it himself.

Next Tuesday, June 16, ITN America founder Katherine Freund sets out on a 60-day, 12,000-mile, coast-to-coast road trip to commemorate the organization's 20th anniversary. On the way she'll be collecting stories from people who's lives have been impacted by the service.

Learn more about the Independent Transportation Network.