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Scaled-back funding hamper Senior Services

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Without a free door-to-door transport service for seniors, a Center Grove area woman wouldn’t be able to live in her home.

Patty O’Sullivan needs to go to dialysis three times a week. But the 67-year-old woman hasn’t driven for 10 years due to multiple health problems. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, a driver picks her up at her house, takes her to her appointment and brings her back.

Other days, O’Sullivan gets rides to the grocery store, the pharmacy or the post office — all places she can’t get to on her own. She’s one of more than 500 seniors in Johnson County who use the free transportation service offered by Johnson County Senior Services, which provided more than 10,000 free rides last year.

The nonprofit also provides medical supplies such as wheelchairs, walkers or adult diapers and runs a food pantry for seniors who often have to make a decision about whether to buy medication or food.

Executive director Kimberly Smith said the number of rides given has increased from about 7,000 to more than 10,000 in the past year, but the organization can’t expand its services due to budget cuts on the national and local levels. Those cuts have cost the organization about $40,000 total.

A fundraiser is planned to not only try to keep the same amount of service but raise $45,000 to put another transport van on the road.

The organization operates on about $200,000 per year, with almost all of it going toward transportation. The funding comes from federal funds from the Central Indiana Council on Aging as well as local funds provided by United Way of Johnson County and local governments, donations, memorials and small fundraisers. Since government money is decreasing or staying the same, doing more fundraising will become an annual project for the organization.

If you go

Event: Johnson County Senior Services Dining in the Dark

Johnson County Senior Services is hosting its first fundraiser to try to raise about $45,000. The money will help the organization put another vehicle on the road that provides free door-to-door transport for seniors. This year’s event is sold out, but the organization is already taking reservations for next year.

When: Thursday, 5:30 p.m.

Where: Beeson Hall, Franklin

What: Dining in the Dark

About: Diners will be blindfolded and served a three-course meal in the dark, relying on their other senses to experience the meal. The event will allow people to experience what a senior with a sight disability experiences on a daily basis and draw attention to seniors in the community who have not sought help they need.

How to help: Johnson County Senior Services is still looking for donations for a silent auction for the event. The organization is also continually seeking cash and food donations for its pantry and volunteers to help around the office.

Contact: Kimberly Smith, executive director at 738-4544

“The other option would be transport less and in my mind that’s not an option,” Smith said. “I can’t even consider that.”

Smith is hoping the fundraiser will bring in $45,000 this summer to put one more vehicle on the road next year. That’s the cost to pay for a driver, insurance and operating expenses for one vehicle.

Each week, Senior Services provides more than 200 trips and more than half of those are for medical needs such as dialysis or doctor’s appointments. Since the organization doesn’t have enough drivers, about 20 seniors end up on a waiting list each week for less crucial trips such as a ride to a senior’s club event, a trip to the hairdresser or getting to a grocery store to pick up a few items, Smith said.

By the end of the year, Senior Services will have 10 cars and vans available, but only enough funding to put five of them on the road if they meet the fundraising goals, she said. The number of rides they’ve given increased from less than 7,000 in 2012 to 10,000 in 2013 and is on pace to be even higher this year.

Senior Services lost the first chunk of funding in the summer of 2013 due to the sequester, a series of automatic spending cuts that occurred because U.S. lawmakers couldn’t agree on a plan to reduce the national debt.

Those federal cuts hit the Central Indiana Council on Aging, which helps fund part of Senior Services transportation program. Just this month, Smith received another notice that the organization can expect $9,500 less than this year due to continuing cuts, she said. That $9,500 could provide about 500 trips for seniors, she said.

United Way of Johnson County also had a shortfall because it didn’t reach its fundraising goal, resulting in a 4 percent cut to Senior Services, eliminating even more trips.

Senior Services started this year expecting a $30,000 deficit between its income and spending, so staff has pushed to get more donations from residents or get local groups such as churches to conduct small fundraisers for the organization, Smith said. Without an increased focus on fundraising, the organization can’t get another vehicle on the road.

“There are 20 people out there every week that need to go somewhere and we can’t accommodate them,” Smith said. “It’s really upsetting to see a vehicle sitting out there and have to tell someone ‘no.’”

Ruby Riota, 81, had a driver pick her up Wednesday to come to the organization’s office on State Street to volunteer, and she and her husband rely on the free transports to get everywhere. When her husband, who is 89 and also doesn’t drive, was ready to be discharged from Johnson Memorial Hospital after breaking his back, they needed to wait to arrange a ride. Without the transport, they had no way to get him from the hospital to their home in Camelot subdivision, which is less than a half-mile away. They’ve used the free transportation service for about 15 months now, Riota said.

Earlier this week, she had a driver take her to a doctor’s appointment so she could get a series of shots that will allow her to keep her eyesight for another three months. Without the treatment, she would go blind, she said.

Bernice Grabenhofer, who lives in the Center Grove area, gets a ride to The Social in Greenwood every day so she can have a hot lunch and spend time with other seniors. She quit driving three years ago after some close calls and has relied on Senior Services to get around since.

If she needs something from the store in a pinch, Grabenhofer, 86, is not afraid to take her walker and cross busy State Road 135 to get to Target. But anything farther away is beyond what she can get to on foot, so the help she gets from drivers allows her to stay connected with friends or get items she needs.

“I’m a people person. I love people and all of the drivers from down there. If it’s nasty weather out there, they help me out to the car and they’re so wonderful,” Grabenhofer said.

Johnson County has about 19,500 people over 65 years old, according to 2013 U.S. Census numbers. As baby boomers continue to get older, Smith expects the need will continue to increase.

“We need to serve more people. To me, that’s the bottom line,” Smith said.

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