Debbie Simmons is looking forward to a quieter time this winter. The phone in her St James Street cottage has been ringing both day and night for four years!
Debbie has been voluntarily organising lifeline transport for Shaftesbury residents. But at the end of this month, Debbie will hand over Car Link’s operations to a couple who will continue this vital community service.
“It provides volunteer drivers for people in the SP7 postcode area, Shaftesbury and the villages around,” said Debbie. “We take people to medical appointments, social appointments and shopping – if they are in dire need of transport and there’s no bus service, which is frequently the case.”
Debbie won’t end her association with Car Link. She’ll continue as a volunteer driver because she knows how this resource makes a real difference within our relatively isolated rural community. “I know so many people who are dependent on the Car Link service. They would feel quite bereft without it,” Debbie said.
Debbie started Car Link after she was asked to help a neighbour in need. “I moved to Shaftesbury five years ago and there is an elderly person close to me who broke her ankle. She needed to get to Odstock Hospital. There was no way she could get there, other than in a taxi,” Debbie said.
Debbie was aware of similar operations in other towns. She contacted North Dorset District Council and they offered advice on how to set up a volunteer transport service. “They also provided some seed funding,” Debbie added.
Since then, dozens of locals have come to rely on Debbie and her volunteers to reach medical appointments or undertake activities which seem routine and straightforward to anybody with access to their own vehicle. “The service mainly provides for the elderly,” Debbie explained. “Many of them are becoming socially isolated and can’t make it to Odstock, Bournemouth and Southampton Hospitals. If you’re elderly and you’re not feeling very well, which is usually the reason you are going to a clinic in these hospitals, then it costs an arm and a leg to get a taxi. Our service charges 50p per mile, which is substantially less than a taxi. And the driver waits for the person as well.”
The peace of mind that passengers enjoy, knowing that they will be taken home after their appointment, is really important. “There’s a maximum waiting time of two hours. Sometimes people need two separate car trips,” Debbie advised.
Volunteer drivers wait in their vehicles for their passenger to return – or read a book in the hospital café, or go for a stroll. Debbie takes her black cockapoo Charlie for walks while she waits for her passengers. Charlie provides an added attraction for some users. “My dog is usually on the back seat and the passengers know him,” she said.
It’s clear to see why Car Link, a service taking elderly or infirm passengers from their front door straight to a hospital entrance, would prove popular. “There are regulars who make frequent trips to hospitals or the medical centre. There are people who go to see relatives. There’s someone who visits her sister in a care home in Blandford,” Debbie said.
But she often operates very short trips around Shaftesbury. “If people live at one end of Shaftesbury, such as Bimport, and they need to get to the medical centre and can’t walk far, then taxis aren’t always available, especially during school time.” And occasionally, the service is booked for long journeys. “Sometimes I have driven to care homes in Woking, London, Bristol and Southampton,” said Debbie.
As we sat in her long garden overlooking Melbury Hill, Debbie’s phone rang inside her house before her answerphone swiftly intercepted the call. I wondered where the caller needed to travel. And why. “On average there are six or seven bookings each day,” Debbie told me. There could be more soon, when the new couple take over. Debbie has not been advertising the service heavily because she’s wanted to boost volunteer driver numbers to meet any increased demand. She hopes to increase the driver pool because the service is currently restricted by the numbers of volunteers available.
“Most drivers don’t want to drive in the evening. I’m open to all requests depending on how urgent it is. I contact the drivers that I know are flexible and see if they can do it. We are not a taxi company. Ideally, I need at least a couple of days notice before a trip.”
Lifts can be required at times when people are most unlikely to want to volunteer, too. At Christmas, passengers may want to book a journey so they can visit friends and relatives. “It gets very busy around Christmas. There are more hospital appointments, too. I suppose people become more ill around that time,” said Debbie.
We turned to Debbie’s recruitment drive for volunteer drivers. Their work is unpaid, but they won’t be out of pocket for petrol and the ‘wear and tear’ on their vehicle. Costs are covered by the 50p per mile charge that passengers pay. Volunteers shouldn’t face problems with their insurers, either. Passengers pay a £5 annual fee and, as such, are members of a club. That simplifies the paperwork. “There is a pro-forma to send to your company which says that you will be taking people in your car but there is no commercial involvement because you are a volunteer,” Debbie assured.
Once they have joined the scheme, drivers can specify the times when they will be available. “On my books I have fourteen or fifteen drivers, but many of them can only do a certain time of day on a certain day. I’m desperate to get more volunteer drivers,” Debbie said. And volunteer drivers don’t need to have a large vehicle, such as a people carrier. “Any car will be gratefully received,” said Debbie.
The driver’s personality is quite important. He or she would need to be a ‘people person’, patient and comfortable behind the wheel. “You’ve got to be confident, you have to enjoy driving. You need insurance and an MOT but we provide public liability insurance to cover difficulties if a person fell over on the way to the car. The drivers really enjoy doing the work. Many have done it for years on end and build up relationships and get to know people.”
And after four years of managing the service, Debbie will stay on as a volunteer because of those friendships and connections she has enjoyed making. “Sometimes, the children of passengers call me and ask for advice and arrange their trips. There’s one son, who is very dutiful but lives in Norfolk. He is on the phone every week about his father who lives in Shaftesbury,” she said.
And Debbie will be involved in generating income for this not-for-profit voluntary organisation. “I’ll be involved in fundraising, quite heavily for it, as well.”
In a few weeks, June and Martin will take over as Car Link’s main contacts. Debbie will turn off her answerphone after four years. She says that her friends are looking forward to calling her number and talking to her directly, instead of having to leave a message on the machine.
“On 1st November we will be transferring to a new mobile number. They’ll be raising the profile, advertising, putting out leaflets, leafleting the medical centre and all the places where there are people who may need us.”
In the meantime, if you need a lift and you haven’t got friends or family to call on, help could be waiting on the other side of Debbie’s answerphone. “They can call 850439 any time of day and I will collect the message,” she smiled.