If you’re a senior living on the Westside and have ever asked for a ride to the doctor’s office or the grocery store, there’s a fairly good chance Donald Keller was your driver.
He's one of nine drivers providing what the Independent Transportion Network of Greater Los Angeles (ITNGreaterLA) calls "dignified transportation for seniors," and they need more volunteers.
"I've done an awful lot of driving in this country," said Keller, 82, of Brentwood.
The U.S. Air Force veteran has more than 50 years experience working real estate and general contracting. When he retired in 2007, Keller said he still liked being out and about on the city streets.
"After all this time working, I just wanted to give back to my community," Keller said.
When he started volunteering with ITN, Keller drove his Lexus ES 350. When gasoline prices began soaring, he got a Chevy Volt after he was spending $260 a month on fuel. Now, Keller said he's driving Tuesdays and Thursdays for roughly 12 hours a week, in addition to whatever their dispatcher may need help with on a weekly basis.
The Center for Healthy Aging began developing ITNSantaMonica (now ITNGreaterLA) in early 2005 as the first replication of the national ITN, based in Portland, Maine. Teresa Bond, president of ITNGreaterLA, said CHA was particularly interested in the program because one of its offices is located a few blocks from the site of the 2003 farmers' market tragedy in Santa Monica involving an older driver.
"He's wonderful," said Bond of Keller. "We're trying to have a proactive way to help seniors give up driving when it's time to give up driving."
Bond said they are looking for at least 20 volunteer drivers for ITNGreaterLA in the Westside to help relieve their dispatcher of the constraint of doing double duty, essentially providing the service and being unable to dual manage calls while mobile. She noted they've plateaued at approximately 300 rides a month given the need for more volunteers to drive in the Westside.
"It's a really wonderful relationship that develops between the driver and the seniors," Bond said, noting their drivers, like Keller, visit seniors in the hospital, have clients who bring their pets along for the ride.
ITNGreaterLA is privately funded and receives no federal dollars.
"We raise money," Bond said. "We depend on donations and we do charge for our services, which is half of what it takes to provide a ride."
Calling it a "silver tsunami" of 77 million baby boomers reaching the age bracket, Bond said they are trying to build their network of volunteer drivers to meet those needs.
For seniors living in Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, Brentwood and parts of West L.A., Bond said many local seniors may have bought their homes in the 1940s and are now living on a fixed income. She also said some Westside seniors live far away from bus stops and taxi companies may be a little remiss to take someone to and from the market.
"They might not be lucky enough to hire private drivers," Bond added. "So theres a lot of people who fall into that mid range, and we need to address that."
Seniors will most likely give up their keys when they have a service that is nearly as good as driving their own private car, Bond noted.
"[For] a senior who's never ridden public transportation, when they give up the keys, [they] will most likely not use public transportation," she said.
For Keller, he wants to help more seniors get around, like the woman from Brentwood he brings to her therapy sessions in Westwood, or the woman from Malibu who goes to therapy sessions in Pacific Palisades, or the woman from West L.A. who he brings to Marina del Rey to play cards with her friends.
"They think I'm the greatest," Keller said with a smile.
For more information on ITNGreaterLA and how to get involved, visit their website.