Driving Mr. and Miss Daisy 

At 66, Bill Mitchell is one of the young guys at the Lewis Senior Center on North Parkway.

And because he has his own transportation to the center - a 15-speed bicycle with only one working speed - he can also be considered one of the lucky ones.

In March, when a city shortfall meant abrupt cuts to the city's budget, the van service used to shuttle senior citizens to and from two senior centers was stopped. At Lewis, the vans were also used for day trips and transporting members of the center's jug band and chorus to nursing homes to perform.

"They've been cutting back on van usage and van service one way or another in recent years," says Mitchell. "Then March 22nd, kabam! Everything's gone."

Mitchell says members of the center thought the city would reinstate van service with the beginning of the new fiscal year, because that's what happened the last time the city discontinued the service. But after July 1st had come and gone - and the vans stayed gone - Mitchell founded the Friends of the Senior Centers.

"I noticed the Friends of the Library managed to get a brand-new, state-of-the-art library facility. It dawned on me that we needed some friends to go to bat for us," says Mitchell.

At the Lewis Center, seniors can paint in the arts room, knit in the sewing room, work on the computer, watch TV, play cards, and socialize. Lunch is $4, and for some patrons, it's their only decent meal of the day.

"Initially we had to cut the service because of the March crisis," Bob Fouche, director of park services for the city, explains. "As we prepared for the current year operating budget, the recreation staff concluded that the service could be provided more efficiently by the Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA). They're in the transportation business."

But MATA recently raised rates for MATAplus - which serves people with disabilities who cannot ride the fixed route system - to $2.25 each way. A little less than five dollars a day might not seem like a lot, but on a fixed income, it can be monumental.

"Most of the people [who used the van service] are old and very poor. Some can't drive a car anymore," says Mitchell.

Andrew Sanders is 80 years old and has been going to Lewis Center for seven years. Before March, he and his 102-year-old mother rode the van regularly. After van service was discontinued, Sanders rode his electric wheelchair to the center if he couldn't take MATAplus.

"Why do I come here? To keep from being by myself. My wife passed," he says.

At a City Council committee meeting this week, Fouche recommended reinstating the van service by September 6th for people who live within a 5-mile radius around each center. He also suggested a $2 roundtrip fee to offset costs.

But Council members rejected that idea, instead asking the parks division to reinstate the service without any fees and to find funding within the city's budget. Before the meeting, Fouche said the van service used to cost the city about $125,000 a year. Maybe this is unfair, but I'll ask anyway: City administrators could spend over $150,000 a year in car allowances for 10 division directors and 14 top staff members but think it's too expensive to drive little old ladies to a senior center?

Fortunately, City Council members would make better boy scouts.

Senior center vans will never generate the interest that day care vans have ... unless someone's granny is left in one. But if you think about the parallel - that city government chose to give free rides to 24 of its top brass while making senior citizens sit at bus stops - it's a small price to pay to improve the quality of life for our seniors. These are the people who can't always stand up for themselves (in some cases, literally), and they are who we should be protecting.

"The people who need the most help are the ones getting left behind," says Mitchell. "The people at park services seem to have convinced themselves that people have found alternate rides or private transportation. Coming three times a week on the van and coming once every two weeks are not the same thing."

I just hope that if anyone ever needs help crossing the street near City Hall, they have their Friends with them.



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