SAN LUIS VALLEY — For older people who no longer drive or don’t have a vehicle, getting around the San Luis Valley can be a significant challenge. This is especially true for area residents who use wheelchairs or have other mobility challenges.
“Transportation is one of the biggest barriers our patients face at Valley-Wide Health Systems,” said KayLee Runyan, a grant writer for the nonprofit community/migrant health center, which provides a wide range of health services for people in the San Luis Valley and other parts of southern Colorado.
Another barrier? Poverty. More than 20 percent of residents in the area live below the federal poverty level. Even if better public transportation was available, said Runyan, many people wouldn’t be able to pay for it.
In response, Valley-Wide Health Systems (VWHS) launched the Valley-Wide Ride, a free transportation program that helps Valley residents get to and from medical appointments, return home after a hospital stay, visit the grocery store or pharmacy, and access other wellness and health-related activities.
When the program started in 2020, the VWHS fleet included four sedans, handy for getting many people around, but not especially useful for older residents with mobility challenges.
“Our head of transportation came to me and told me we were missing a lot of people,” said Runyan. “He said we need a vehicle we can get wheelchairs in and out of so we can transport people who can’t self-ambulate.”
Runyan applied for and received funding from NextFifty Initiative, a Colorado-based private foundation that funds projects and programs to improve the lives of older adults and their caregivers. The funds, which came from the foundation’s Community Response Fund, were awarded to help VWHS purchase one wheelchair-accessible vehicle but ended up paving the way for the organization to purchase two vans.
Rides are now available in Alamosa, Monte Vista, Antonito, and San Luis, as well as a group of small towns on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.
“We’ve had really positive feedback,” said Runyan. “People [who use wheelchairs] are really excited when they find out we can come and get them.”
Runyan is happy that the new vans are providing more options for older adults, especially in this remote area where options are already limited.
“We only have one senior center, which is located in Alamosa,” said Runyan. “The only one in the Valley. All of their programs and activities are located in Alamosa. We’re just trying to do more outreach to get people more out and about. It has been really tough.”
The NextFifty Initiative team is excited to see the positive impact that Community Response Fund dollars are having for older Coloradans, especially in remote and rural parts of Colorado.
“In talking with nonprofits in rural Colorado, we learned that their biggest challenge is often just meeting day-to-day needs or responding quickly to setbacks or opportunities,” said Diana McFail, president and CEO of NextFifty Initiative. “When we created the Community Response Fund, we made sure we could get the dollars out quickly so that organizations serving older adults have more options.”
NextFifty Initiative’s Community Response Fund provides grants of up to $25,000 to Colorado nonprofit organizations that provide programs or services for older adults. The funds can be used to meet one-time, immediate needs, such as a wheelchair-accessible vehicle, specialized equipment, or facility repairs. The fund is open until expended and resets annually on January 1. More information about this fund, including who is eligible, can be found at www.Next50Initiative.org.