For some older people, ceasing to drive is like ceasing to live.
But for residents of Haddonfield and Haddon Heights, Interfaith Caregivers rides to the rescue. The nonprofit agency has offered free local lifts, mostly to seniors, for 20 years.
"Our clients want to be able to stay in their own homes and live their lives. They just can't drive anymore," executive director Mary Ann Bigelow says.
"It's More Than Just a Ride," Interfaith's slogan, is as accurate as it is catchy. The mission is to help people pursue that mix of activities, mundane and occasionally sublime, that makes for a fulfilling life.
For many, losing the ability to drive is like losing their identity. A member of my family has struggled with this recently, and it's heartbreaking. It really is.
Being able to get up and go is a way to express ourselves, a way to be who we are. And in a car-is-king landscape like South Jersey's, the freedom to see friends, shop, or simply get a change of scenery is dreadfully diminished when one is without wheels.
"I just brought a 98-year-old to an AARP party at Giumarello's Restaurant in Westmont," Bigelow says. "Her hair was done, and she had her white fur on. She looked fabulous."
Last year, several hundred volunteers drove about 350 clients to roughly 6,000 destinations - social events, religious services, medical appointments.
That's about 500 trips a month, mostly on weekdays. Volunteers also run errands, send cards, and provide in-person companionship as well as "telephone reassurance" - calling up regularly to chat.
Volunteers don't accept tips, unless you count the occasional homemade cookie.
Despite its name, Interfaith Caregivers is secular, and its volunteers do not provide care. The organization is neither a medical transportation nor taxi service, and there are restrictions: Clients must live in Haddonfield or Haddon Heights, and must be assessed before rides can begin.
"We want to make sure a person doesn't need more help than we can provide," Bigelow explains.
We are at Interfaith's headquarters in the cottage behind Haddonfield Borough Hall. It's where Bigelow and full-timers Pat Busarello and Suzan D'Angelillio keep things humming.
"We have a lot of scheduling and matching to do," D'Angelillio notes. "We would have nothing to offer anybody without our volunteers. They are amazing."
Volunteers and clients often bond immediately - another example of "More Than Just a Ride" in action.
Stratford resident Karen Cox, a retired registered nurse, arrives to take a longtime client Christmas shopping.
"Every time I do this, I feel like I'm making a new friend," she says. "The stories people tell you!"
Such as the 90-year-old bowler who was taken weekly to participate in a league at Baker Lanes, the Barrington man who regularly visited his wife in a Cherry Hill nursing home, and two current clients who get taken to and from volunteer commitments of their own.
I ride along as Cox drives an 86-year-old widow to buy holiday candy. Flakes of snow sprinkle the air as we head down Route 70 toward Bayard's in Cherry Hill.
"Oh, I can't describe how wonderful all the volunteers are, and the staff members, too," says the client, whom Interfaith has asked me not to identify. But it turns out I've known her for years. It's great to see her.
"I feel like they're part of my family," says the lady, whose hair is as stylish as her bright white winter coat.
"They know I have a vision problem, and they help me in and out of the car and with steps. I try and do for myself, but sometimes I need help.
"They take me to the doctor's, to grocery shopping at ShopRite in Brooklawn, to my hairdresser in Haddon Heights. They take me to church, and they even took me to the cemetery to see my husband's grave. He's at New St. Mary's in Bellmawr.
"Truthfully," she says, "I don't know what I would do without them."