As part of the latest Community Health Needs Assessment conducted about two years ago by the Harvey County Health Department, along with other community health organizations, transportation was one of the three areas found to be significantly lacking in the community.

From that, a committee was born — one consisting of commercial partners, such as Harvey Interurban and Circles of Hope, health partners and local government partners — in order to meet the transportation needs of Harvey County residents. Now, the work of that group has nearly come to fruition — with the Find-A-Way program set to launch once enough volunteer drivers are found.

Though transportation options existed before to help those needing assistance getting to medical appointments, the committee found through research that those services presented at least one obstacle — tied to money, access, etc. — that created restrictions among potential clients.

"What we needed to do was we needed to come up with a system to tackle all of those ... whether it be a physical issue, a financial issue or an availability issue," said assistant health director Toby Harkins.

"Our main focus was always to look down the road and get that affordable transportation for those individuals who need transportation and for whatever reason can't afford it or they don't have a car," said Harvey County Department on Aging Director Robert Carlton.

Harkins co-chaired the transportation committee with Carlton and, through surveys of 66 local businesses and organizations, they found that a minimum of 1,000 people per month were affected by a lack of transportation in Harvey County.

Costs associated with existing services (e.g. Harvey Interurban and cab services), as well as schedule restrictions — such as a lack of evening and weekend hours — were found to be the two most pressing issues playing into transportation needs across the county.

During the course of the committee's work in the past year and a half, Newton Medical Center has launched a 24-hour transportation service (at a cost), but as Carlton noted, offering services that are affordable and accessible to all has been the primary objective — a role that the Find-A-Way program will fill.

Find-A-Way will provide transportation to qualifying low-income individuals, who will apply for annual ticket vouchers, throughout the county. Initially, services will be offered on return trips from Newton Medical Center over the weekends and to scheduled medical appointments during the week.

Grant funding has been secured to hire a volunteer coordinator. Now all that remains is for volunteer drivers to be hired. While drivers will not be paid an hourly wage, they will receive a reimbursement of $0.40 per mile driven. An application process (including background checks) has been set up for the program as well, though Carlton is hoping the program can tap into a system that already exists to secure drivers.

"We know in this county that there are many individuals who are already doing this service. There's volunteers who are taking people to their medical appointments and to the hospital. So, today, we'd hope that some of those folks will come on board and be a part of a bigger service for Harvey County," Carlton said. "As soon as we have the volunteers in place, we'll launch. We're ready to go. Everything is completed except for the volunteers."

Coverage area will be determined, at first, by where volunteers are coming from, but Carlton and Harkins noted the goal is for the Find-A-Way program to have a countywide reach. Additionally, given the stories they have heard personally, they said they are hopeful that services can expand to include transportation to additional providers, such as clinics and pharmacies.

Between the appointments Harkins knows of personally that have been missed because of transportation issues and the increased traffic among the Harvey County Interurban in 2018, the need is clear — and both Harkins and Carlton are hopeful that the Find-A-Way program can help meet that.

"This is a real problem facing everybody's neighbors, everybody's friends, everybody's family in Harvey County and helping out just a little bit would make a huge difference in somebody's life," Harkins said. "This is absolutely probably the most wonderful community to work with on projects like this because the generosity and the spirit of wanting to help their neighbor is rampant in Harvey County. It's just all over the place, it's in every nook and cranny, and so it's been a delight.

"What we're putting together isn't something that's not already happening. What we're putting together is a way to reimburse, a little bit, the people who are already doing this."

Right now, volunteers 55 and older are being sought for the program, while services would be offered to those 18 and older. For more information on how to get involved with Find-A-Way, call 316-284-6883.