PORTLAND — Millions of Americans drive every day, whether it’s commuting to work, making a trip to the store or just for fun.
But what happens when older drivers start to lose their ability to drive safely?
The most obvious solution is for that person to get a ride from someone else. And that’s where the nonprofit organization Independent Transportation Network comes in.
The organization, now entering its 20th year, was founded as a way for senior citizens to have access to volunteers willing to drive them where they need to go.
And to celebrate the anniversary of the first ride, ITN founder and President Katherine Freund is kicking off a rather unusual drive of her own.
“It’s a 60-day, 12,000-mile trip around the United States to talk to people about how transportation needs for older people are met and unmet, and how (ITN) has changed their lives,” Freund said.
Freund is starting her long drive in Portland. Along the way, she will be interviewing and recording people affected by the program at every stop in what ITN is calling the Storybook Tour.
“I want people talking and doing something,” Freund said. “I want people to tell their stories. Stories make a difference.”
The recorded stories will go online on various platforms, such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Freund will also keep an online journal with daily entries, and at the end of the journey, she said she will compile all the stories in a book.
“This is a very important social issue that everyone deals with and hardly anyone talks about,” she said. “It’s only by creating an opportunity for national dialogue that people will realize they’re not alone.”
To find people willing to tell their stories, ITN is getting help from it’s 20 affiliates across the country, as well as AARP, the American Foundation for the Blind, the American Occupational Therapy Association, the Vision Service Alliance and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.
“We want to hear stories from everyone,” Freund said.
ITN, which began as a local program 20 years ago in Portland, became a national program in 2005. Now based in Westbrook, the program still services 13 communities in Maine, including Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, Freeport, Falmouth and Cumberland.
Freund said she started the organization after her son was run over by a car driven by an older driver when he was 3. Instead of getting angry, she decided to change the system.
“We ought to have a way to fix it,” Freund said. But she said the problem isn’t being solved fast enough. So she wants others to step up and help.
“If people notice there are older people (in need) and offer them rides, it would go a long way to solve the problem,” she said.
In addition to the Storybook Tour, ITN is launching a campaign to celebrate its 20 years of service. Freund said the organization hopes to add 20 more volunteers to its staff, get 20 more cars donated, and raise $20,000 in donations for local ITN affiliates.
People interested in becoming volunteer drivers, or donating vehicles, can do so online, or by calling Morgan Jameson, ITN’s manager of affiliate support, at 591-6945. Donated vehicles are either sold or used to drive seniors.
Katherine Freund, founder and president of the Independent Transportation Network, is taking a 12,000-mile drive to interview people across the United States about how the Maine-based program has affected their lives.