By: Michelle Poirier

Like many community-based organizations, Routes Connecting Communities, which provides affordable transportation services for seniors and those in need, had to pivot during the pandemic, creating new programs to help meet its clients’ unforeseen needs.

While there had been fewer overall rides provided this year, with most social events cancelled, Niv Balachandran, Routes’ Executive Director, said the not-for-profit has seen an increase in requests for transportation to access essentials services.

“We’ve had more requests for food bank deliveries. There are a lot of single-parent families who said they were no longer able to go to food banks because they were homeschooling their kids,” Ms. Balachandran said.

During the pandemic, Routes began reaching out to isolated seniors. It started the Friendly Call program, matching its volunteer drivers with clients for regular phone calls to help curb loneliness.

Its most recent initiative is the Cyber-Seniors program, which is operated in partnership with Jericho Youth Services and funded by a grant from the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility.

This program offers technology support and allows clients without access to a computer to borrow one, Ms. Balachandran said.

“What we noticed was that a lot of people needed to be able to connect online, but they may not know how to use their smartphones, laptops or tablets. So, we have a program where we have youth who has been trained to provide one-to-one tech support, as well as group sessions on general topics,” she said.

Ms. Balachandran said that the program has helped seniors book their COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Routes also helped seniors arrange transportation to vaccination clinics by either referring them to York Region Transit’s Mobility On-Request or providing them with a ride.

Routes’ volunteer drivers were added to the list of very high-priority health care workers, receiving a shot in Phase 1 of the province’s vaccine rollout.

“It was a huge thing,” Ms. Balachandran said. “Because our drivers are on the front line, putting themselves out there all the time. Being able to get the vaccine helped them feel safer doing what they do.”

Dave Atkinson, one of the volunteer drivers, said he is glad that he was prioritized for vaccination because of the risks involved.

“It’s been a bit of a challenge, for sure. We have very direct contact with people in somewhat confined quarters. Also, the nature of the business changed quite a bit,” he said.

In the past year, he said he has been making more food deliveries, as well as taking clients to doctor, dentist, and hospital appointments.

“What I have noticed is the degree of appreciation that our clients have for what we do at this time because they recognize that we’re taking risks, and they’re very appreciative,” he said.

Ms. Balachandran said Routes’ priority is to ensure their clients are safe and able to get to where they need to go.

“It was a bit of a pivot over the last year, but we have navigated it,” she said.

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