Multiple sclerosis is a maddeningly mysterious autoimmune disease that leaves each of its victims with a unique progression of symptoms.
It has confined South Whidbey resident Tamara Guthrie to a wheelchair, but it didn’t completely rob her of her independence. When her husband was gone for weeks on business trips, she still was able to get to her doctor’s office and other important appointments through Island Transit’s paratransit service.
But that has changed for Guthrie and many other people on Whidbey. The leaders of the taxpayer-funded transit service recently made significant cuts and modifications to routes after financial problems came to light.
“We are in desperate need of paratransit right now,” she said, explaining that at least two other members of her small group are affected by the cuts.
“For me, I’ve lost the independence that I used to have.”
Guthrie’s group, South Whidbey Island Multiple Sclerosis, is hosting a community meeting with Island Transit officials to discuss what the route changes mean to seniors and the disabled. The meeting is from 2-4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 11, at the Bayview Senior Center.
Island Transit Director Martha Rose said the agency is in the process of revamping the entire system in order to meet more transportation needs, particularly paratransit service. But the process will take some time; after a plan is developed, it will be vetted in public meetings and then refined, she said.
In addition, she said the agency has worked with individual paratransit riders affected by the cuts.
“We make every effort to get every person we possibly can,” she said.
Nevertheless, some of the county’s most vulnerable are having trouble.
“For 50 paratransit riders right now, we are really up a creek,” said South Whidbey resident Kathleen Landel, referring to those who lost transportation due to cuts in routes 5 and 8.
Landel’s mother lost her paratransit rides to Adult Day Services at the Bayview Senior Center. Landel said she’s been scrambling to bring her mother to and from the center.
Landel has been researching such ideas as starting a community cooperative to fill in the gaps of paratransit.
“I do feel that there are paratransit needs that aren’t being met right now,” she said, “and people are really feeling isolated.”
Cheryn Weiser, the executive director of Senior Services of Island County, agreed. She said some people are also having trouble getting to senior center programs because of the cuts; about 16 of the 20 participants in the Adult Day Services use paratransit.
Weiser said she expects the agency’s medical transportation program to be inundated with calls for help.
In the past, the volunteer drivers mainly helped seniors and disabled people with getting to medical appointments off the island to places like Seattle and Bellingham. Island Transit’s paratransit handled the transportation needs to appointments on the island, she said.
That changed with Island Transit’s cuts to service and Weiser worries that Senior Services won’t be able to keep up with the demand.
Weiser said the medical transportation program needs more volunteer drivers, particularly on North Whidbey. The program is headquartered at the Cam Bey Apartments in Coupeville and managed by director Pat Weekley, who can be reached at 360-678-4886 or by emailing patweekley@islandsenior
Of course, many people who rely on traditional bus services are also affected.
Jackie Henderson, director of Island County Human Services, said many developmentally disabled people in the community rely on Island Transit to get to work. Cuts in routes and particularly the loss of Saturday service has been devastating to some folks.
“A lot of people have jobs and totally rely on bus service,” she said.