tampabay.com

Red Cross will cease elderly transportation

The agency cites a $50,000 deficit and potential liability problems.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published February 27, 2007


Ever since her heart attack five years ago, 86-year-old Rose Guarraia has been riding to Bayfront Hospital's cardiac rehab program to keep her heart healthy.

But lately, she says, "I wake up in a sweat every night wondering what to do."

The reason: The Tampa Bay Chapter of the American Red Cross is phasing out a program that gives people like Guarraia free rides to medical appointments.

In this sprawling region with many elderly residents and no unified mass transit system, the Angel Wings program fits many needs. Volunteer drivers give about 16,000 rides a year to roughly 500 people in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

But the Red Cross decided to end the program June 30 because of potential liability problems and a deficit of more than $50,000.

Deciding to shut down the service "was probably the most difficult decision that I have had to make in my 19 years for the American Red Cross," said Scott R. Salemme, CEO of the Tampa Bay chapter.

"This decision was not made lightly," Salemme said, and came only after long deliberations by the Red Cross' board of directors.

The Red Cross is trying to soften the blow by giving several months' notice about the program ending, and distributing lists of other social service agencies that provide transportation.

People like Guarraia, who turns 87 Wednesday and no longer drives, have grown to depend on the Red Cross. She says she's not sure how she will get to cardiac rehab now.

"I don't know, I'm fervently praying every time I can," she said. She said drivers she has spoken to "are absolutely heartbroken because it's what they love to do."

Volunteer drivers such as William Manning agree.

"I think it's terrible," said Manning, 72, who has been with the program about four years. "I see myself doing a lot of good for people who can't drive."

He said his passengers are asking "what am I going to do?"

"They were just so nice, they loved to have the companionship," said Gerry Murphy, 50, who has been a volunteer driver but took a break recently while caring for a relative. "They'd give you hugs. I had a lady give me a flower one time."

But Salemme said many have been quite understanding about the change, and glad for the suggestions about where to turn next.

The service began in 1982 and has been an important part of Red Cross operations in the Tampa Bay area. Several members of the chapter's board of directors began as volunteer drivers.

It costs about $200,000 a year in vehicle leasing, fuel and other costs. Volunteers raise money but it runs a $50,000 deficit.

"Also, a series of incidents this past year increased concerns about potential liability for both volunteers and the chapter," said Red Cross spokeswoman Melanie Koch.

Salemme said drivers have been in some accidents. Most were minor, but one was serious. "We're in a very litigious society," Salemme said. "We had to factor all of those things in."

The chapter's liability insurance rose 37 percent this year, he said.

Besides the cost and liability, Red Cross officials said the transportation program is not part of its core mission: providing disaster relief, health and safety training, and emergency services to military families.

By the numbers

500 approximate number of people served in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.

16,000 rides the service provides every year.

$200,000 annual cost in vehicle leasing, fuel and other costs.

$50,000 deficit the program is running.