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Robert Stange is a volunteer Semcac transportation driver.
Robert Stange spends a lot of miles on the road.
Stange, who lives just south of Winona, logs about 400 to 500 miles a month transporting people to medical appointments and other occasional errands as a volunteer driver for SEMCAC, the community action agency that provides a variety of services in Southeast Minnesota.
“I average about two to three rides per week,” said Stange, “I used to do more, but it got harder to get up in the morning.”
Stange is one of more than 100 volunteer drivers who help anywhere from 20 to 50 riders a day, said Erlene Welshons, transportation director for SEMCAC’s Volunteer Driver Program as well as the Rolling Hills Transit bus service.
Welshons said the Volunteer Driver Program provided more than 16,000 rides in 2015 — anywhere from 20 to 50 per day — in Winona, Houston, Fillmore, Dodge, Steele and Waseca counties.
About 95 percent of our rides are to medical appointments,” she said. The other 5 percent are for trips to the grocery store, the beauty salon or to retirement homes to visit loved ones. “You’re service very rural areas, so they don’t have family available to help them.”
Anyone who receives Medicaid is available for rides to medical appointments, Welshons said. Riders age 60 and older can also take advantage of the personal rides other than for medical needs. Medicaid and several insurance providers including UCare and Blue Cross pay for the rides at various rates, and the drivers are reimbursed at the standard Internal Revenue Service rate for mileage.
SEMCAC’s drivers beat a path to five regional hospitals, Welshons said, including Olmsted Medical Center and the various Mayo Clinic sites around Rochester, Gundersen Lutheran Health Systems in La Crosse, Owatonna Hospital and Winona Health.
“We easily, on a given day, have 20 clients going to Mayo,” she said.
Sitting in the lobby at the Rochester VA Outpatient Clinic on Monday, Stange said in his seven years as a volunteer driver, he’s been all over the region. “Had a young woman, took her to the dentist near Eagan,” he said.
Stange had driven Harold Risser from his home in Winona to the VA. That was 120 miles on Monday.
Risser, who has used the Volunteer Driver Program for two years and has two standing weekly rehab appointments, suffers from emphysema and other ailments, and is unable to drive. “I don’t know what I would do without it,” he said.
Over the years, Stange said he’s seen some of the same riders over and over, and Risser is one of them. The two have gotten past small talk on their rides and chat about more important matters. “The casinos,” Risser said with a laugh. Stange quickly followed with an impersonation of his friend. “Watch what you’re doing,” he said in mock panic. “Slow down.”
Both men laughed. Whether it is Stange or another driver who shows up, Risser said in two years of calling for a lift, SEMCAC has never failed to find him a driver.
“Never,” he said. “Not a once. I try to tell them ahead of time.”
At this point, he knows all the drivers by name. “They’re all very nice.”
Stange gives a wink when he said how he got started with SEMCAC’s program.
“When I was younger, I was a little bit thoughtless, rude,” he said. “When I saw the ad in the paper for this, I thought this is a good way for me to pay back for my ways.”
Depending on the appointment, Stange will either wait in the lobby — if it’s a short one — or head out for lunch or a coffee if the appointment likely will last a while. When his rider is ready, he drives them back home.
“It’s a good feeling to be able to help them,” he said. “Most people are very grateful. It’s a good feeling to have them say thank you for the ride.”