Friends in Safe Hands, of Wantagh, has offered a major solution for seniors in Bellmore and Wantagh in need of reliable transportation for almost 50 years — but may not be around for much longer.
FISH provides free door-to-door medical transportation service to any resident over 60 in the Wantagh and Bellmore communities. The volunteer group is one of the last three surviving FISH operations in the county, with the other two independent groups based in New Hyde Park and Floral Park.
The Wantagh group’s director, Paul Desroches, said he hopes to see the group reach its 50th anniversary in 2020 — the same year he turns 84. Knowing that he and other FISH officers are ready to retire — again — he told about 40 volunteers at the group’s annual business meeting last week the honest truth about FISH’s future.
“Unless people step up, FISH is going to be finished after 50 years,” Desroaches admitted. “If nobody steps up to become director, this organization can’t swim on its own.”
He said not all people have friends or family on whom they can rely, or the ability to drive themselves to important medical appointments — and the high insurance premiums that come with them. FISH of Wantagh provides about eight free rides a day for these senior citizens in need, with donations and a yearly fund from the county giving volunteer drivers mileage reimbursement and supplementary insurance coverage,
Although the program still has its head above water, data from the Nassau County Department of Human Service Office for the Aging suggests that they will need a bigger boat to handle an estimated 10 percent increase in senior citizens countywide in the next ten years.
Currently about one in five Nassau County residents are over the age of 60. Almost 15,000 of those citizens live in Wantagh, North Wantagh and the Bellmores, where senior citizens make up over 20 percent of each community’s total population.
The program also has its limitations. Outside of driving to most hospitals in the county, drivers can only drop off passengers in an area bounded by Jericho Turnpike, Merrick Road, Route 110 and Rockville Centre. The service also is only available on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Other transportation options, such as the Nassau Inter County Express’s Able-Ride, exist, but they too are not perfect. Able-Ride charges $7.50 for a round-trip, and trips cannot start or end more than three-quarters of a mile away from the normal NICE bus routes.
Lina Cormance, 80, emigrated from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and settled into Wantagh in 1975. She spoke little English and needed transportation because her husband started work at 4 a.m., and her kids were too young to drive.
That is when she found out about FISH. She used the service back when it was offered to any neighbor in need, and became a FISH regular in 2006 when her kids moved out and her husband had open-heart surgery. The group, she said, allows her to get to her physical therapy appointments, and her two usual drivers, one being Tracy Idell, are like family to her.
“They are a good service with excellent people,” she said. “Tracy is my best friend now. She’s like a second daughter for me, really.”
FISH volunteers, including Donna Gerber, a retired teacher from the North Bellmore School District, are also grateful for the group’s community presence.
“I admire this group for all that they do,” Gerber said. “We see how helpful it is to the elderly without families who don’t know how to get to their doctor without this program.”