Elmer Morin, 78, of Limestone (left) and Chuck Beidelman, 85, of Caribou have become fast friends thanks to Morin's volunteer work with Caribou Area Ride Service. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Without his new friend, Chuck Beidelman of Caribou might have lost access to community services.

Elmer Morin, 78, of Limestone began driving Beidelman, 85, to grocery stores and medical appointments in February after Beidelman began experiencing mobility challenges. Morin volunteers for Caribou Area Ride Service, a program looking to expand and fill crucial transportation gaps for senior citizens in and beyond Caribou.

“He takes me everywhere I need to go,” Beidelman said. “I don’t know where I’d be without him.”

Twenty-four percent of seniors in Aroostook County rely on family or friends for rides because they cannot afford cab fares, according to a 2019 study from the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service. Sixty-five percent of seniors surveyed in that study said their communities did not have public transportation services.

While Aroostook Regional Transportation Services provides bus service to eligible seniors and people with disabilities, it typically visits towns only on select days. That leaves seniors without close family or friends few affordable options for getting to and from stores and medical appointments.

That’s where Caribou Area Ride Service comes in.

The program, launched in October 2022, has recruited 10 drivers who convey seven seniors to grocery stores and appointments. So far the program has been popular with riders, so coordinators want to expand into nearby towns, if they can find reliable volunteers like Morin.

A shortage in volunteer drivers has affected similar programs across Maine. The Lewiston-based Community Concepts shuttered its ride service for seniors in Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties last year.

Modeled after similar programs in York and Penobscot counties, CARS pairs volunteer drivers with seniors 65 and older who need weekly transportation. It has taken a while for people to become aware of the services, project coordinator Sharon Berz said.

Elmer Morin, 78, or Limestone, helps Chuck Beidelman, 85, of Caribou out of his car while grocery shopping in Caribou. Morin is one of 10 drivers who volunteer for Caribou Area Ride Service. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

The Caribou-based nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Rural Living is operating CARS as a one-year pilot program funded through a $36,181 Community Development Block Grant.

“Word of mouth has been helpful,” Berz said. “A lot of medical providers and housing managers have seen our flyers and made referrals.”

That was the case for Beidelman, who learned about CARS from providers at Cary Medical Center. Beidelman’s son and daughter live nearby but both work full time and cannot always take time off to drive him around, he said.

Morin has been helping Beidelman grocery shop, pick up prescriptions and arrive on time for medical appointments. The pair have become fast friends, often stopping at a local restaurant for coffee and a chat with acquaintances.

“He’s one heck of a nice guy,” Beidelman said. “He’s right there anytime I need or want something and is very courteous.”

The $4 round-trip fee that seniors like Beidelman pay is a small price compared with what could happen without CARS, Berz said. Many seniors either cannot afford fees from local cabs, Uber or Lyft options, or don’t have nearby family members.

“All our riders live alone,” Berz said. “Sometimes they have missed appointments because they didn’t have transportation.”

The people behind CARS want to make more success stories like Morin and Beidelman possible. Volunteers and more funds can help.

The CARS pilot will end in July but Berz is working on grants that could expand services. She is also attempting to find community sponsors who can cover some of the riders’ round-trip fees.

Ideally, Berz said, CARS coordinators would like to recruit drivers for New Sweden and Stockholm residents. Located nearly 10 and 18 miles from Caribou, respectively, the towns are among the region’s most rural areas. Neither town has a medical clinic.

For now, the Center for the Advancement of Rural Living is attempting to get grants that will allow the program to remain in Caribou, board member Bill Flagg said. The current CDBG funding covers Berz’s position, program marketing and software used to track trip mileage, he said.

Morin encouraged more people to volunteer as drivers, for the crucial service they can provide and for the rewarding friendships that can follow.

“One of these days, I might need help getting around. I have the time and the transportation, so I want to help anyone who needs this [service],” Morin said.

For information contact Berz at 207-551-5672 or berzsharon@gmail.com.