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Kudos for Vermont's #1 CIDER

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Grand Isle County is probably one of the last places you'd look to find a nationally recognized escort service. That is, unless you need someone to take your aging mother to chemo treatments five times a week. The county is home to CIDER, an innovative special-needs transportation agency that's largely driven by volunteers. It's been helping seniors get around since 1993. The nonprofit also builds wheelchair ramps, delivers meals, and sponsors classes on topics such as end-of-life care.

Last month, the Community Transportation Association chose CIDER as its "2005 Rural Transportation System of the Year." Executive Director Robin Way and Program Coordinator Jim Holzschuh went to the award ceremony in St. Louis, Missouri, where they schmoozed with federal Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. "He was very interested in what we do," says Way.

CIDER stands for Champlain Islanders Developing Essential Resources. It's an apt assessment -- the county has the fastest growing population of elders in the state. It's also the only county in Vermont without a mid-level assisted-living facility. So if elderly and disabled residents want to stay close to home as they age, they need to live at home, and helping them get around is absolutely essential.

CIDER serves about 260 clients, who pay from $2 to $5 per trip. The agency uses four large, white vans to transport them to stores and doctor's offices, about 90 percent of which are off the islands. Holzschuh says CIDER gives rides to Vermonters who live farther north as well. "We take folks from the Canadian border to Fletcher Allen," he says. Those 150-mile roundtrips help push their fuel bills up to as much as $2500 a month.

Though CIDER receives some money from federal programs, it depends heavily on fundraising and volunteers. If one of the four white vans isn't practical or available, CIDER calls on one of its 56 volunteer drivers, who transport neighbors in their own cars. Way says that though many of them are retired themselves, only a handful accept mileage reimbursements. This keeps costs low, and keeps CIDER from rationing its services, as other rural transportation agencies in the state may do. Because of budget constraints, in some Vermont communities, transportation agencies can only offer two rides a week to dialysis patients, who need three.

Holzschuh attributes CIDER's success to the close-knit community. He points out that even people who aren't volunteering support CIDER through frequent coin-drops or bake sales. "Everybody here in the islands kind of takes care of each other," he says.

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