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A shortage of volunteer drivers is threatening transportation programs across Maine

York County Community Action Corporation

Lewiston-based Community Concepts has shuttered a long-time transportation program that provided rides to seniors and others in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties. The program doesn't have enough volunteers.

What's more, it's not the only organization facing the same struggle.

Signs of trouble began a few years ago.

Like other community action programs around Maine, Community Concepts relies on volunteers to drive those who need a ride to a doctor or mental health appointment.

But Chief Operating Officer Mary-Rita Reinhard says the pandemic wiped out the nonprofit's once-deep bench of volunteer drivers.

"And as a result it created fear, fear of being in a vehicle with someone, and so that's when it really started to hit an all-time high, in terms of how many drivers we were losing," Reinhard says.

Community Concepts had more than 170 drivers back in 2016. Last year, the program was down to 39, and Reinhard says more people have been lost since then.

"Our volunteer driver base is an older population, and folks are aging out and deciding to discontinue to provide services," Reinhard says.

The situation is not uncommon around Maine.

Downeast Community Partners uses a combination of volunteers and agency staff to serve those in need of rides in Hancock and Washington Counties.

Transportation director Cheryl Robbins says 20 years ago, there were close to 70 drivers. Now, the agency is down to 19 drivers and eight volunteers, an all-time low.

And at the York County Community Action Corporation, there were 65 volunteer drivers before the pandemic. Now, there are 10.

Most volunteers in Maine are reimbursed between 44 and 45 cents for each mile driven. But many agencies have increased the rate to offset rising fuel costs. In York County, Assistant Transportation Director Deb Paradis says her agency boosted the rate by an additional 10 cents a mile earlier this year.

"So we're just basically eating the difference. As a non-profit agency that's not ideal, but not having volunteers is worse," says Paradis.

With fewer people to drive, community action agencies are reaching fewer people in Maine.

"There's lot of folks that need services that we're having a very hard time providing the service for," Paradis says.

In York County, Paradis says volunteers made an average of 1,400 trips a month in 2019, compared to this past June, when that number was slashed to 440 rides.

Covering three counties, Community Concepts volunteers used to make about 264,000 trips a year. But like York County, their travel was also drastically reduced last year — down to a fraction of what it once was.

Reinhard says the Community Concepts transportation program has accumulated $1 million in losses over the last eight years. And while the program will end next month, she stresses that Community Concepts isn't closing. The nonprofit runs more than 40 other community projects, which Reinhard says are all financially stable.