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Need for volunteer drivers rises as Tucson seniors return to regular routines

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During the height of the pandemic in Pima County, seniors were often staying home to avoid the risk of exposure.

Now, as many have been vaccinated and concerns have eased, more seniors want to get out of the house for medical appointments or shopping.

That means the need for volunteer drivers has returned, and Interfaith Community Services is searching for help.

ICS is a nonprofit that’s not connected to a single faith community but is, according to ICS Volunteer Engagement Manager Tori Carlson, associated with 122 different faith community partners.

ICS has been operating for over 35 years and relies primarily on volunteers to provide its services, Carlson said. This summer, ICS has run particularly low on volunteer drivers.

“Typically, every summer we always struggle getting more drivers because so many of our people that volunteer are retirees,” Carlson said. Many retirees choose to live elsewhere in the country during the scorching summer months.

Carlson said it wasn’t as much of a problem during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — seniors were staying in their homes more for their own safety — but more clients are getting back to their normal routines.

All volunteers will submit an online application, attend a Zoom orientation, participate in a background check and provide two personal references, according to Carlson. Once completing those steps, the new volunteer driver will receive training via Zoom on expectations for them and the computer system used to self-select rides.

Each trip would last two to three hours, and the driver has control over which ZIP codes they will pick up from. For the senior’s safety, everyone in the car is asked to wear a mask, and the driver should also wipe down the seat before each trip.

For longtime volunteer Jerry Kroninger, 86, his near-decade of service at ICS during his retirement have proved a rewarding experience.

Since moving to Tucson nine years ago, every Tuesday he and his wife have been delivering food to senior citizens through ICS’ mobile meals program, another service the organization provides. And for eight years, Kroninger has volunteered as a driver.

Kroninger said one instance he particularly found fun was regularly helping a woman with a wheelchair go grocery shopping up until she passed away at 98.

“I’ve known a lot of people, 90-year-old people, that have continued to live in their own places, in their own homes or apartments, because of the assistance they get from either repairing things in their home or bringing them meals or helping them in one way or another,” Kroninger said. “So I’m strongly in support of that.”

Kroninger said the most impactful part of the experience was the different people he’s been able to meet through volunteering.

“We take a lot of things for granted through life,” Kroninger said. “I think that being a volunteer and helping other people makes us appreciate the health that we have … and makes us feel good, because the people that get the service that we provide are very appreciative of that.”

ICS also has other volunteer opportunities, including child care, helping with resumes and working at the ICS food bank.

Lora Pirzynski, 60, volunteers at the food bank with her husband Jim. She became a more regular volunteer at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Pirzynski emotionally recalled how she saw people there who had never been in a food line before the pandemic.

“They had never had to do that before, so it all felt … kind of intense but important,” Pirzynski said. “You could kind of have this momentary connection with someone driving through.”

Pirzynski was also involved in the ICS vaccine program, which was set up to contact seniors and offer them any assistance they needed to get the COVID-19 vaccine. She said she called about 300 people as part of that program, but there are a few calls she remembers in particular.

One call she mentioned was to an elderly woman with cancer who was unable to seek the help she needed in another state without a vaccine. Pirzynski said she recalled the woman crying on the phone because her husband had tried to get her a vaccine appointment several times before to no avail.

“I don’t know the outcome, but it was literally life-giving for her,” Pirzynski said.

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