FORSYTH -- There are times when the conversation might turn to football. Or the weather. Or the cost of ground beef.
Although the folks riding shotgun don’t have their hands on the steering wheel, Jim Buff will let them steer the conversation down the road.
So they talk about their favorite TV shows and their grandchildren’s first day of school.
Other days, there is no chatter. They ride in silence, down country roads and interstates, past old barns and new billboards.
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They are often hurting or physically drained. They get emotional and reach for words that are not there.
If they bring up their cancer, Jim will listen. When the opportunity presents itself, he will let them know he has walked in their shoes. He understands the road they’re on.
He is a cancer survivor. His wife, Wanda, is a cancer survivor.
It is his prayer that one day they will be able to make the same claim.
For now, though, he considers it his mission to help them.
Jim is coordinator of the American Cancer Society’s “Road to Recovery” program for Monroe County. It calls on volunteers to provide transportation for cancer patients who either do not have transportation or cannot drive to doctor’s appointments and radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
Monroe is one of the few counties in Middle Georgia with an active “Road to Recovery.” Programs in larger counties such as Bibb and Houston are inactive, sadly because of lack of volunteers. In Macon, the current cancer case load for both the Medical Center of Central Georgia and Coliseum Health Systems is more than 1,800 patients. Of course, not all of them need rides, but many do.
There are 30 “Road to Recovery” programs and 155 volunteer drivers in Georgia. There are huge voids and gaps in service. Although there are needs in every county, there is an ongoing statewide push in Bibb/Houston, Albany, Savannah, Augusta, Atlanta and Athens.
High gas prices can partly be blamed for the decline in volunteers, who are not reimbursed for their travel expenses. Another challenge for the American Cancer Society is raising awareness of the program to recruit volunteers and educate the public about the program.
Glenda Davis, the senior representative for community engagement at the American Cancer Society office in Macon, wants to encourage more businesses and church groups to consider signing up for “Road to Recovery” as a community service project.
Jim has driven cancer patients to appointments in Macon and Atlanta for 14 years.
“We have treatments for cancer, and I believe one day we will have a cure,’’ he said. “But I believe some people will still die from cancer because they can’t get to where they need to get for the treatment.’’
Jim has lived in Monroe County since 1975, when he joined the faculty at Tift College. He spent 36 years in education. This past week, he and Wanda celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary.
He became involved with Road to Recovery through the Monroe County Leadership Council of the American Cancer Society. The local program was founded by Benson and Ruth Ham, who married after both losing their spouses to cancer.
Jim recruited his 11th volunteer driver this past week. Although he could use another entire fleet of volunteers, he cannot brag enough about the ones he has. He is like a proud coach.
“My drivers are some of the most selfless and giving people I have ever known,’’ he said. “They are amazing. They are special.’’
Jim asks his drivers to commit to one day per week. Most of the trips are to Macon, but several are treated in Atlanta. For patients with a doctor’s appointment or receiving radiation, the duration of the visits is much shorter, so the volunteer is usually asked to provide round-trip transportation. For those undergoing chemotherapy, Jim tries to arrange different volunteers to take and pick up a patient.
Jim has traversed nearly every road in Monroe County, from Forsyth to Culloden to High Falls to Box Ankle and Blount. He has transported truck drivers and escorted Wal-Mart employees.
Many of them live somewhere below the poverty line. He has taken food to families in need and bought clothes for men who had little or nothing to wear to the doctor. He has stayed in touch with patients. He remembers one man who had throat cancer. Jim pulled up to his double wide. The man was so exhausted he fell asleep before they left the driveway.
They became friends. Jim told him they would go to Dairy Queen to celebrate his last treatment. When they sat down at the DQ, Jim asked him how it felt to be cancer free.
“I took his photo at the moment he had this big grin,’’ Jim said. “It was the most beautiful smile. He just radiated. I can still see that picture.’’
A few months later, the cancer came back. Jim attended the man’s funeral.
Cancer is everywhere. It is up this road and down this path. Jim is frustrated over the number of communities where there is no “Road to Recovery’’ or similar program in place.
“What happens when your husband or wife can’t take you and you’ve tapped out all your friends?” he said. “What are you going to do?”
Jim wants to offer more than just a ride.
He wants to give them hope.
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.