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Economy drives more free ride requests

Bonnie Voth takes Red Wing resident Mae Olson to Fairview Red Wing Medical Center on Tuesday. Voth has been a Faith in Action volunteer for three months.

Waiting patiently for her free ride to the doctor, Mae Olson contemplates her options.

"It would cost way too much for a taxi," said Olson, a Red Wing resident who cannot drive. "You just can't afford that."

"What would I do?" Olson wonders.

Moments later, Olson's question is answered as Faith in Action volunteer Bonnie Voth arrives and swings open her car door.

Voth and other Faith in Action volunteer drivers have had a busy summer, said Lee Neste, the non-profit's director.

Just last week, the organization - a network of community and faith congregation volunteers that provides assistance to the elderly and others in need - had a record number of free ride requests.

Lee Neste said the economy and rising gas prices has driven a surge in transportation needs.

"For some people it's just an economic hardship to get to where they need to go," Neste said.

The record number of requests comes as the agency operates with one less employee who was laid off when officials learned one of their major funding sources - a grant provided by an agency Neste declined to name - was being "drastically" reduced.

Neste said the depleted paid staff means volunteers are being relied on more heavily to provide rides - a tough job for volunteers struggling themselves.

"Our volunteers have just been stepping up," Neste said. "They just see people needing these services and they provide even though it might be hard on them because they use their own vehicle, pay for their own gas to help others out."

Voth has been a volunteer driver for just three months.

"I can certainly see a big need," she said.

Neste said the agency will need more volunteers if transportation requests continue at record-setting levels.

Michael Schultz, Faith in Action board director, said it's likely that upward trend will continue if the economy does not improve.

"I think some people simply don't have gas money, they don't have it and there's nothing they can do," he said. "They need some assistance or they're not going to get there.

"It's really hard to say no to somebody when you realize they just have no other resource here," Schultz added. "The money's gone from the car to other needs."

Faith in Action's transportation program is its most popular and has been affected most by the economy, Neste and Schultz said.

Neste has noticed more people specifically requesting rides to the local food shelf.

Though Neste said agencies like Faith in Action don't receive necessary government funding, local donations have remained steady.

He said that's likely because the agency is local and people know what kind of services it provides.

"We feel if we can help people remain independent in their own home ... that is economically a big savings to the people of the community," Neste said. "Otherwise the community is going to get taxed to try and take care of these people."

Faith in Action started a 11 years ago to help increase and improve local senior services.

For more information or to volunteer, call (651) 385-3290 or (651) 385-3293.