When state officials ask what services rural residents need most, transportation is at the top of the list, particularly for senior citizens, who often need door-to-door rides that a bus route can't provide.
Helping seniors with transportation is expected to grow more important over the next 20 years, as the population of Minnesotans 65 and older is expected to double to 1.2 million.
For a growing number of Minnesota communities, volunteers already are filling the gap.
In the small northwestern Minnesota town of Hawley, Jodi Puhalla Neumann is trying to start a volunteer driver program. Neumann, who runs a non-profit social service organization, said transportation is the number one concern for many area senior citizens.
She recalls a conversation with a local resident who was forced to move because she couldn't find a ride to regular doctor appointments 20 miles away in Fargo-Moorhead.
"She's lived in Hawley all her life," Neumann said. "She recently ended up moving to Moorhead. It's a loss for her and it's a loss for our community too."
That scenario is becoming more common in rural Minnesota, as residents who need regular medical care move to regional centers where there are hospitals and public transportation.
"Everything you do in your normal daily life you can't do anymore ... If I couldn't do that, I don't think I'd be very happy."
Neumann said she doesn't want any seniors to be forced to make the choice to move to a larger community.
"The assumption is made that there's so many more things and they just need to move," she said. "I don't think that's necessarily true. I think we can do something to say no, you can have a choice to stay here too."
Neumann hopes to have a volunteer driver program operating by spring. She's looking for funding from corporate sponsors or local donors. A few drivers have already volunteered.
Dozens of volunteer driver programs are scattered across rural Minnesota.
The state Department of Transportation offers grants that help fund some of the programs. Some are run by social service agencies, some by service clubs, some even operate as part of a county transit system.
In Barnesville, a volunteer driver program has operated for years, run by a small non-profit called Helpers. A local service club donates money to help pay for gas, but many volunteer drivers refuse reimbursement.
Volunteers provide rides to doctors appointments in Fargo, but they also take people to the bank, the local grocery store or the beauty shop.
Linda Rice is a volunteer driver in Barnesville, but she's also been a rider. When her shoulder was injured a couple of years ago and she couldn't drive for two months, she felt isolated.
"I know what it was like for me to have to have somebody take me to the beauty shop," Rice said. "Maybe that doesn't seem like it's the most important thing in the world. But it sure makes you feel a lot better when you're able to have your hair fixed."
"Everything you do in your normal daily life you can't do anymore," she said. "I have to go to the bank, I have to go pay a bill, I have to pick up some bread. If I couldn't do that, I don't think I'd be very happy."
The Barnesville Helpers non-profit arranges from 6 to 15 rides a week. There are usually enough drivers to meet demand.
Renee Taylor, who runs the Helpers non-profit, said winter can be a challenge because many of the retired volunteers head south for a few months.
"We try to keep as big a volunteer base as possible so we don't burn out our volunteers," Taylor said. "That is a huge issue that we address because we don't call the same people every week."
Volunteer drivers are big part of the transportation network in rural communities. But it's difficult to include volunteers in a regional or state transportation plan. No one tracks how many volunteers there are, and the number changes every month.
Mike Kunza, a transportation planner for the Fargo-Moorhead Council of Governments, said volunteers will likely always be important in rural areas, because it's simply not efficient to run public transportation for individual riders.
But Kunza, who has worked on Minnesota's rural transit plan, said the challenge is making the most efficient use of those volunteers. Right now, he said, the volunteer programs are fragmented with little coordination.
"Between different units of government, social services, transit, there needs to be more of a connection," he said. "They do different thing but a lot of times they're serving the same people. It would be good to see more coordination. I know it's been worked on but there's a long way to go."
In some rural counties, one third of the population will be 65 and older by 2030. That means more people will need transportation if they want keep living in their homes. But the aging population means there will also likely be many more volunteers to do the driving.
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