Transit service helps people in WR with variety of needs

WARNER ROBINS — Using a walker, 58-year-old Sharon Brown made her way to a van Friday morning that would take her to her dialysis appointment.

She eased into the van and made sure to say good morning to everyone before taking her seat.

“They won’t let me behind the wheel, so you got to do what you got to do,” she said.

Brown first became a passenger with the Agape Love Partners With Christ transit service about a year ago. Before then, her husband drove her to appointments, but he had to work during the day. She began using one of the few taxi services in Warner Robins but had to wait for long stretches after her appointments before being dropped off at home.

Then a receptionist who works at the dialysis center referred Brown to the nonprofit organization.

“When they said it was Agape, I knew it was God,” Brown said.

Brown’s story is one that Tonya Johnson and Elizabeth Holmes, the organization’s founders, had heard dozens of times from the elderly and disabled. Many of them were frustrated with the few other local transit services because they were either too costly or called for long wait times.

When Johnson and Holmes first formed Agape in Warner Robins in 2006, they expected to receive calls mostly from people seeking assistance with food, clothing and rent payments. In 2007, however, the two women began to get calls of a different kind.

“Instead of food, people were like ‘Could you take me to the doctor?’’’ said Johnson, the organization’s president.

The women soon decided to shift gears to add transit service to their list of programs. Johnson and Holmes, who serves as vice president, began using their own personal vehicles to drive their clients to doctors’ appointments, dialysis treatments, the grocery store and even beauty shop appointments.

The price isn’t set, and clients pay what they can afford. Johnson said the aim is for clients to at least be able to afford the cost of the fuel.

“We’ll drive you to California if you can cover the gas,” Johnson said.

In emergency situations, clients have been driven places at no charge.

“When it’s a matter of life and death, something has to be done,” Johnson said.

In the beginning, the service attracted many people who were elderly and disabled. However, Johnson said that as time went on and the economy eroded, she and Holmes began getting more calls from working-class people and college students.

Janet Kelly, a spokeswoman for Middle Georgia Technical College, said she’s aware of a few students who have used Agape. She said the group’s information is given to students who voice transportation needs.

“It’s an option that we offer to students that is helpful to Middle Georgia Technical College as far as retention,” Kelly said. When gas prices were at their highest last year, the school witnessed a drop in its enrollment from outlying areas, she said.

Since Agape’s beginnings, a car and a van have been donated to them. Currently, Agape serves about 30 clients in Middle Georgia. With the help of sponsors and payments made by clients, the organization is able to pay for gasoline and maintenance.

Yet with the growing need, Johnson and Holmes have not been able to help everybody. Because none of their vehicles contains a lift, they cannot transport people who rely on wheelchairs. They also have not been approved to accept Medicaid as a form of payment.

For those reasons, Agape is seeking assistance from the city of Warner Robins to create a transit system for the kinds of clients they’ve been serving.

Currently, Agape is on the list to receive $5,000 from the city’s 2009 Department of Housing and Urban Development entitlement grant. Johnson and Holmes also want to collaborate with other transit systems to broaden their client base. The organization is seeking financial and community support from the midstate.

“We have been in the red many times, but this is what is in our hearts,” Johnson said.

And so they continue to move forward with smiles on their faces. With the tag line “just like riding with family,” Holmes and Johnson take an interest in every passenger who gets into their vehicle.

Friday morning when Brown was being picked up, the two women joked with her about her cat Vanilla. Both Johnson and Holmes laughed when they thought about how Brown has made them turn on music in her home before her departure for dialysis so her cat wouldn’t be lonely.

“We go far beyond the call of duty, but we love what we do,” Johnson said.

Earlier Friday, the women dropped off Anissa McCloud, a business administration technology student at Middle Georgia Technical College.

McCloud, 36, first began using the service in August when she returned to school after a two-year hiatus. With a degenerative eye condition, McCloud could not see well enough to drive and had to go on disability from a previous job. Her vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Department of Labor put her in contact with Agape after conventional taxi service proved too expensive for her.

Now, she relies on Agape to get to and from school five days a week as well as go to the grocery store and beauty shop.

“This is a lot better environment riding here than a taxi,” McCloud said.

Doretha Hamilton, 59, was glad to see the Agape van pull up about 9:30 a.m. at her dialysis center in Warner Robins. The service had dropped her off for her dialysis appointment at 5:30 a.m., and she was ready to head home and recuperate.

Like Brown and McCloud, she had tried other transit services but found Agape was the one that was the most convenient for her situation.

“I want to be on time and early,” Hamilton said. “And when I get off, I want to go home.”

Holmes said making sure clients get to their destinations on time and are picked up in a timely manner is the key to the service’s success so far.

“We treat people the way they ought to be treated,” she said.

To contact writer Natasha Smith, call 923-3109, extension 236.