Purchased for $10K, the Care-a-Van bus has been operational since November 2022. Before that, Derek McClure ran the service out of a smaller van. /ABIGAIL POPPLE

By Abigail Popple, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, RMG

Care-a-Van, the volunteer-run transportation service for seniors and disabled residents of Valemount, unveiled its new website at the beginning of the month.

The bus is operational on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and usually makes 10 to 12 trips both days, said volunteer Derek McClure. Two volunteers pick up clients at their homes, helping them onto the bus’ wheelchair lift if necessary. Then, they use a system of seat belt-like straps that cross over the person in a wheelchair to keep them secure during the ride.

Inside, the bus is spacious enough to hold two wheelchairs and two scooters at once. It also has seats for those who do not use wheelchairs, plus two recently-installed heaters to keep riders comfortable. McClure’s dog, Niko, eagerly greets riders as they board the bus, and keeps them company as they ride.

Derek McClure’s dog, Niko, greets riders as they board the bus. McClure lets riders pocket dog treats to share with Niko as he dutifully sits in the aisle. /ABIGAIL POPPLE

According to McClure, the service made over 450 trips last year, taking clients to the grocery store, social outings, and the health clinic. He said social contact is one of the most important benefits of Care-a-Van, something he tried to emphasize on the front page of the new website.

“It’s funny, we take some people and they’re kind of sleepy, they’re not full of energy,” he said. “But when we pick them up [from a gathering], the social good of the coffee and playing games and stuff, you can notice the difference.”

Users of the service agreed that it provides a valuable opportunity to get out of the house.

Monique Jamin said the Care-a-Van has helped her keep spending time with her friend Jim Mueck, who uses a wheelchair.

“I’ve been spending time with Jim a couple times a week over the last 25 years. At some point, I couldn’t put his manual chair in the back of my car, so I couldn’t take him out,” she said. “This bus means that he can get out.”

Volunteer and past user of the service Betty Gray agreed. She said when her prostheses made it difficult to drive, the service still made it possible for her to go grocery shopping.

“It’s necessary, absolutely necessary,” she said. “Otherwise, seniors sit in their homes going nowhere. It just gets them out to things, you know? That’s really important.”

The Care-a-Van also has an evacuation plan in place for mobility-compromised Valemount residents, according to McClure. Last summer, the hospital in McBride gave McClure a call to ask if he would be willing to help evacuate disabled patients – while the evacuation did not come to pass, it got McClure thinking about an evacuation plan for Care-a-Van users.

“The worst time to get an ambulance would be during an evacuation,” he said. “And when you get to where you’re going [in an ambulance], you have to be put on some sort of bed or stretcher or something […] you’re taking what mobility people have away from them.”

By evacuating through the Care-a-Van service, McClure said, people will be able to keep their independence.

Running the service involves a lot more than just driving the bus, McClure said. The bus requires near-constant maintenance.

Care-a-Van volunteer driver Derek McClure goes over the day’s schedule with fellow volunteer Jack Hoy, sitting out of frame. Some days last over 12 hours as clients have early-morning and late-evening health clinic appointments, McClure said. /ABIGAIL POPPLE

“We need more support staff to keep this thing going. It’s been a full-time job for me for about three years,” he said. “Driving, training folks, cleaning the bus – there’s always a light burned out, there’s always something to be done.”

McClure said that the service is always in need of volunteers to help keep the bus operational. In particular, it needs to be vacuumed and swept regularly to keep dust and gravel off the floor, as debris may interfere with people’s wheelchairs. 

According to McClure, every volunteer for the service is a senior citizen. He said Care-a-Van will need a succession plan eventually, but volunteers’ hands are full with the weekly upkeep of the bus. He hopes to recruit new volunteers to keep the service running for generations to come.

However, McClure said that the service has enjoyed a lot of community support over the years. Local mechanics have volunteered to do occasional repairs, and Care-a-Van had a successful car wash fundraiser with the help of the fire department last year, he said. The support of Dannielle Alan, who sits on the board of directors for the Regional District of Fraser-Fort George, was also crucial in getting the service up and running.

“There’s just so many people that contribute to this,” McClure said. “That’s the most amazing part, how helpful people in the community have been.”

McClure hopes the website will be a way for him to highlight the contributions of the community, and says that a “Thank You” page for everyone who contributed in 2023 is coming soon. He will also use the website to advertise the Care-a-Van’s services, such as its bimonthly trips to Golden Years Lodge. It also makes it easier for people interested in using or volunteering for the service to contact current volunteers, as it displays the service’s phone number and email address on the “Services” page.

Multiple volunteer positions are available: the service needs drivers, people to secure wheelchair users on rides, grocery shoppers, cleaners, minor maintenance workers, and a social media manager. Interested people can email [email protected]. People can also make donations at the webpage, or send cheques to PO Box 1026.