Mar 11—TUPELO — “Wanted: Driver taking elderly to important appointments. Flexible hours. No pay. No benefits. Big reward.”
That’s what the advert for the Shepherd’s Center of Greater Tupelo might say.
The interfaith nonprofit has operated successfully in Lee County for nearly 30 years, with dozens of volunteers driving older adults to medical appointments, therapy sessions, pharmacies, grocery stores, banks.
And then the pandemic hit in early 2020.
“Before COVID the Shepherd’s Center was very excited, but since COVID our volunteer drivers have dropped dramatically, but our demand continues to grow,” said Kathryn Barrow, a volunteer driver. “We’ve reached the point of despair.”
In 2019, the Shepherd’s Center had 54 volunteer drivers who completed 2,200 drive requests, said Barrow. By 2022, that number will drop to 26 voluntary drivers completing 834 driving requests.
“This drastic reduction is solely based on the reduction of voluntary drivers,” he said. “It’s clear that the community needs the Shepherd’s Center to continue, but we need help spreading the word to increase our volunteer drivers, or we risk going bankrupt.”
Shepherd’s Center of Greater Tupelo, which started in 1991, is affiliated with the Shepherd’s Center of America, said Kirk Biddle, a volunteer driver and former director of the group. It’s one of 55 branches in the country and the only one in Mississippi.
“Our volunteers are probably down 50%,” says Biddle. “After COVID they never came back. The problem was there were a lot of rides we couldn’t fill, which saddened us. We knew there was a need.”
Volunteering is easy, says Biddle. Drivers need a valid driver’s license and proof of car insurance and must be in good enough physical condition so they can assist seniors in getting in and out of the vehicle.
Originally, the volunteer drivers were seniors themselves, because that was one of the cornerstones of the organization—seniors helping seniors.
“I started volunteering in 2012 after I retired from Lane,” says Biddle. “I was having a hard time adjusting to not working. First thing you know, you’ve done every single thing honey should do on your list, and nothing good is on daytime TV. I’m climbing walls.”
Biddle started driving to the Shepherd’s Center, driving clients to and from appointments.
“Retired people now don’t seem as focused on reaching other people,” says Biddle, 76. much to me as it was to them. That’s what we as Christians are taught.”
When the organization tried to recruit more drivers, it no longer set an age requirement for volunteers.
“We’re expanding our field to anyone who wants to volunteer,” says Biddle. “There may be a stay-at-home mom who can drive after they drop the kids off at school and before they pick them back. There may be men who do night shift work who may have time to volunteer during the day at the doctor’s office. open. open.”
Volunteers can drive as little or as often as they like, says Cindy Butler, who coordinates client needs with volunteer drivers. He worked in the office at the First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo.
“I don’t put any parameters on the driver,” Butler said. “I have eight volunteers I can count on who are always available. Another six if they can.”
But even that core group can’t be all things to all people.
“We get requests to direct clients to 13 to 15 appointments per week,” he says. “In February, nine appointments were canceled because there were no available drivers.”
The Shepherd’s Center uses a software program called Assisted Rides. Volunteers can log in and view client requests and sign up for requests that fit their schedule.
“I might drive someone to the doctor, run some errands, then come back and get them,” says Barrow, who has been driving for about two years. “Occasionally, I may stay with them, but you don’t have to. They always have our number so they can call when they’re done. Car time with these precious people has God’s hand on it.”
On Wednesday, volunteer driver Teresa Biddle picked up Billie Baum from Traceway Manor to take her to her appointment at Consultant Endocrinology. Biddle helped Baum into his SUV, and the two chatted as they drove through town.
“We talk about the weather, the people we have together,” says Baum, 84. “I enjoy everyone who has ever taken me anywhere. They always say, when we leave an appointment, ‘Is there anywhere else you need to go?’ visit?go?’ Usually nothing, but I’m not afraid to ask again.”
Biddle, 74, started driving for the Shepherd’s Center in 2018, because her husband was deeply involved with the group.
“I had retired from the Good Samaritan Free Clinic, and I thought this was something I could do,” says Teresa Biddle. “My mom was on Traceway for 17 years, and I was her caregiver. I saw how important transportation was to her. I tried to drive clients two to three times a month. It got me out of the house. And it gave me a purpose in life.”
Barrow says when he’s driving a client, he’s not just helping that client — he’s often assisting the client’s family as well.
“Some of these people don’t have family here, and they can’t afford to take a taxi every time they need to go to the doctor,” he said. “But even those with families here — sometimes families need a break. We help older people, but sometimes we help caregivers too. Some of these clients need to have therapy three times a week.”
Butler, 74, said when he moved to Tupelo in March 2020—at the start of COVID—he knew only one person in town. She accepted a part-time job as the coordinator of the Shepherd’s Center to make a little extra income, but also so she could meet more people in the community. As soon as he boarded, he found himself becoming a volunteer driver.
“It’s very satisfying,” he said. “I’m getting old, and I’m grateful that I can drive and walk and see. I think able-bodied people need to be there to help other people. That’s God’s business.”