ELLSWORTH — Getting older is not for the faint of heart, especially in rural Maine with extremely limited public transportation.
Being able to get to medical appointments and grocery stores is crucial, but the what if scenarios are endless.
What if you lose your license or lose confidence in your ability to drive and your spouse has passed? What do you do? What if you can’t afford a vehicle? Transportation is often critical in keeping an older adult in his or her home and maintaining independence.
“When you can’t drive and you can’t get to where you need to go, it doesn’t take much to improve the quality of your life,” determined Jo Cooper, the founder of Friends in Action, in the fall of 2002. The nonprofit provides free transportation and social and fitness programming to older adults in Hancock County.
Cooper has been improving the quality of life for older adults by recruiting and organizing local volunteers to give rides.
The Bar Harbor native and Lamoine selectman recognized 20 years ago that there would be a need for free, customizable transportation for the legions of Mainers growing older.
“I’d been a hospice volunteer,” Cooper said. “I could see a need. It seemed to be something no one was addressing.”
But now, Cooper has decided she will retire next spring and let someone else take the wheel as director of the organization. She intends to be a volunteer driver at least one day a week.
“I am turning 70 next year,” Cooper said from her office on the second floor of the Moore Community Center on State Street. “More and more it seems like the right thing to do for the future. It’s making me strengthen some systems.”
In the beginning, the organization was called Community Connections, modeled after Island Connections, for whom Cooper had worked on Mount Desert Island.
Cooper’s first client was a retired nurse living with her family in Ellsworth. The woman’s son and his wife had full-time jobs and were raising a family. The retired nurse had a medical condition that required her to get to the hospital every week for testing.
“To be able to do it herself” and not have to ask her family to take her every week made a difference, Cooper said.
When Cooper was interviewed in the early days of what would become Friends in Action, she said “continually relying on loved ones for help can strain both parties.”
Hancock County residents were only too happy to help.
“By Christmas, we had over 20 volunteers,” Cooper said. Now there are hundreds. Some volunteers give a ride a week. Others do more.
“People are so relieved to know there’s someone out there who will help them,” Cooper said. “There’s no way you can help everybody and with everything. I have learned the small things matter. A little bit of help can make a big difference.”
Under Cooper’s watch, Friends in Action launched a coffee house for seniors, a dedicated gym for seniors as well as a senior playground off State Street in Ellsworth.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old organization’s board of directors has begun advertising for a new executive director.
Experience volunteering is the most important quality a new director should have, Cooper said. “We have an outsized reliance on volunteers.”
Candy Gammelin of Ellsworth has been on the board of Friends in Action for many years.
“Empathy for older adults is crucial,” Gammelin said. “It’s one thing to run a nonprofit. But we have a pretty specific clientele. It’s important to work with families, not just the person using the service.”
The new director should have “broad vision but the specific ability to address an individual’s needs with empathy,” Gammelin said. “Jo is able to listen so carefully to someone’s story and find out/figure out how we as an organization can fill those needs.”
“Another thing Jo has just excelled at is building partnerships,” said Gammelin. “We’ve been designated an age-friendly community due to a lot of Jo’s efforts. She’s been the face of the organization for a long time. She’s good at making connections.”
“It’s going to be incredibly hard, but I think we’ve come to grips with it now and are putting our best foot forward,” Gammelin said. “I think we all feel responsible for the organization’s success. We’ve got a really dynamic board and we’re not going to let things slide at this point.”
Gammelin recruited another board member, Mary Ann Lock of Ellsworth, six or seven years ago.
In addition to serving on the board, Lock also gives rides two to three times a week.
“I meet people that are alone for the most part and aren’t able to drive,” Lock said. “You get to chat with them about their history. And they get a chance to engage with someone.”
For people who have thought about volunteering to give rides but are on the fence so to speak, Lock encourages them to just try it.
“When you get a chance to see how grateful people are and the opportunity to engage with somebody who may be all alone, it’s very rewarding.”
“Jo has brought just a wonderful organization to the community of Ellsworth and really has a passion for the senior population and helping people to maintain their independence,” Lock said. “She exudes that passion. She will be greatly missed, and I hope that we can continue to expand and be the organization she developed moving forward.”
To volunteer, call 664-6016.