ECHHO – Making a Difference for 24 years

by Nancy Budd-Garvan, ECHHO Driver and Board Member

When Cynthia heard the word “Cancer,” her heart sank. When they told her she faced 30 days of radiation treatments at a center in Poulsbo and that someone would need to drive her there and back every day, she was overwhelmed. She had just recently moved to Port Ludlow, and due to the pandemic, hadn’t had an opportunity to get acquainted with people. So how was she going to get to Poulsbo and back, every day, for a month?!

Standing are ECHHO drivers Margie and Jim Gormly, with
Lenetta Johnson seated in the wheelchair.

Fortunately, the physician’s assistant told her about ECHHO (Ecumenical Christian Helping Hands Organization). One call is all it took, and Cynthia was in the “helping hands” of six different drivers, one of whom picked her up each day, waited while she underwent treatment, and then brought her back home. “I loved the companionship and social aspects of having a friend while going through the experience,” she says.

I was happy to be one of Cynthia’s drivers. I moved to Port Ludlow in 2017 and after the unpacking was done, began to look for an opportunity where I could use my prior experience with senior transportation; I had firsthand experience of the difference it can make in a person’s life. I contacted ECHHO, and within a few days, I was an official ECHHO volunteer driver and on my way to discovering my new environment through the eyes and experiences of the people I drove.

Now in its 24th year of operation, ECHHO provides a vital service for East Jefferson County residents who need assistance to remain independent in their own home. ECHHO was created in 1997 by the Stephen Ministry at First Presbyterian Church in Port Townsend under the direction of Bruce and Jeanette Travis, along with Shirley Champion, Jefferson Health Care and Catholic Community Services. They recognized a growing need to help the aging population of the community with transportation, errands, chores, and medical equipment.

ECHHO provides transportation to and from medical appointments, grocery stores, pharmacies, physical therapy facilities, and other essential services both within and outside Jefferson County. In addition, they provide the durable medical equipment people need to recover from illness or surgery, or to support them through disability on a short-term or long-term basis. In recent years, ECHHO has partnered with the Port Ludlow Community Church to warehouse and dispense medical equipment locally.

Jefferson County’s population is the oldest in Washington, and the ninth oldest, nationally.

  • The median age in the county is 55; 44% higher than the U.S. median*
  • Over a third (34.2%) of county residents are age 65 and older*
  • Of residents 60+, just over half are female* – although ECHHO’s clientele is 63% women
  • 40% of county households have a senior adult living alone*
  • 79% of the adults who live alone are women. And many of them are “Senior Orphans” – they do not have family members in the area.

(* Sources: Port Townsend Leader Annual Profile Issue; U.S. Census, DataUSA)

ECHHO is the only provider of individual no-cost transportation in the county, though donations are welcome, of course. ECHHO pays drivers for mileage. When local physicians refer a patient to medical facilities inside or outside of Jefferson County, ECHHO gets them there. When people who no longer drive need to get groceries, pick up prescriptions, or go to the bank, ECHHO makes it possible.

Thanks to the support of individual donors, grantmaking organizations, and a strong corps of volunteer drivers, ECHHO is able to provide its services free of charge. Local residents, along with Rotary Clubs, churches, and local businesses, provide over half the funding to sustain this vital resource for our community. First Presbyterian Church continues to provide its manse gratis to ECHHO for its offices. Additional support comes from the Department of Transportation, Olympic Area Agency on Aging, Jefferson Community Foundation, Norcliff Foundation and Jefferson Healthcare. But it’s the volunteer drivers that make it all possible.

“The most meaningful part of being a driver is an accumulation of gifts given and received – the gifts of times shared in a car – time filled with happiness, with sadness, with fear of a doctor’s report, with secrets, with life stories, with expectations. The time shared in a car can be a precious thing for both client and driver. Often the person needing the ride has had no one to talk to for days.” – Margie, ECHHO driver since 2004.

Each volunteer chooses the rides he or she wants to take from the daily list emailed to each driver. I usually sign up to take people from Port Ludlow, Port Hadlock and Chimacum to appointments in Poulsbo, Silverdale, Bremerton, as well as Sequim or Port Angeles. When I need to stock up at Costco or Trader Joe’s, I look for an ECHHO ride to Silverdale. While the patient is in the doctor’s office, I’m doing my shopping.

Jeanette Myers and driver Jim Riley. Submitted Photos

For people who need regular treatments on an ongoing basis, such as radiation, chemo, or dialysis, there is usually a small group of drivers who provide transportation for that individual every week. It creates a supportive network and social interaction for the patient, and meaningful learning and “feel good” rewards for the driver.

“Recently, one of my ECHHO riders joyfully announced her doctors have declared she is in remission. She attributed a large part of her recovery to the support her ECHHO drivers provided during her lengthy treatment. It made me so proud to have been part of her support system during the most difficult journey of her life. During my working career, I never imagined that I could made such a difference in people’s lives, but as an ECHHO driver, I see it every day.” – Katie, ECHHO 2018 Volunteer of the Year.

Personally, I had to undergo one of those not-so-fun diagnostic procedures recently, and I’d been told they wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have a driver. Fortunately, I knew about ECHHO. My driver, Jack, along with his adorable dachshund, got me to my Silverdale appointment right on time and came in to show that I did indeed have a driver to get me home safely. When my appointment ran late, I got a bit worried. But Jack and his pal were happily walking around the parking lot, ready and waiting when I was finally discharged. What a relief!

A growing number of us “older folk” are taking the “bionic” route to stay active as we age. The ever-increasing number of us opting for joint replacement is making ECHHO’s equipment lending service very popular. ECHHO has the crutches, walker, wheelchair, or knee scooter you’ll need until you’re “back on your feet.” And they have the toilet seat riser, the grab bars, the shower chair and all those other things the doctor prescribed for your convalescence. It costs a lot to buy that stuff; ECHHO lends it to you for free, because someone like you donated their equipment, and now they can share it with the whole community.

“We first became aware of ECHHO in 2004, about a year after moving here from California. I required ankle fusion surgery. We took advantage of their program of no-cost loans of crutches and other medical accessories to help in my weeks of re-hab. When my husband and I were looking for a volunteer opportunity we could do together, we became ECHHO drivers so we would have a common experience to talk about and share.” – Stephanie, ECHHO driver

Stephanie and Ted Buehler

Not all of ECHHO’s clients are seniors. I have given rides to younger people who suffer from a neuromuscular disease (like ALS and Multiple Sclerosis), to a young mother who needed to take her daughter to a facility in Sequim, and to a middle-aged woman going for diagnostic tests at a clinic in Port Angeles.

Jeanette from Port Ludlow goes to the Kidney Center in Port Townsend three times a week.  “The drivers are wonderful. One gentleman, who drives a big SUV, made me a custom step so I could get in and out of his car more easily.”

ECHHO drivers learn to be flexible and sometimes need a sense of adventure. Roger in Chimacum, who’s been an ECHHO driver since 2004, talks about one drive that involved picking up a client at 4:00 a.m. to go to a medical appointment in Silverdale. The client lived out in the woods, and Roger was barely able to find his way there in the dark. But in addition to the medical appointment, there were five bags of grain and eight bottles of propane to be picked up on the way home! Fortunately, Roger’s big town car handled it all.

Every week, ECHHO drivers deliver 45 or more very important rides for our neighbors. In 2019, they drove over 90,000 miles and dedicated more than 5,600 hours to help the older and disabled members of our community. If you ever wanted to really make a difference in someone’s life, including your own, I can heartily recommend you think about becoming an ECHHO driver.

For more information about ECHHO, click this link http://echhojc.org/ or call 360-379-3246.