Don Buchner drove the West Coast’s new Wheels for Wellness van in the Pacific Rim Whale Festival's Parade of Whales and Wonders last weekend. The van carries a $34

West Coast picks up Wheels for Wellness program

Communities continue to tackle regional transportation issues.

A successful pilot program has driven local leaders to pick up the Wheels for Wellness program full time.

The program, which began in Comox in 1997, helps medical patients living in rural communities get to their non-emergency medical appointments out of town.

Patients are picked up at their door and returned home in a Wheels for Wellness van helmed by volunteer drivers. The service is free though donations are encouraged.

All operational costs, including gas, are paid for through grants secured by the Wheels for Wellness society but the West Coast must pay a one-time $34,000 tab to buy the van that will be used.

The districts of Ucluelet and Tofino have each agreed to put $5,000 towards the cause and Electoral Area C will pitch in another $2,000.

Possible grants are being sniffed out and local businesses are mulling over sponsorship opportunities to make up the remaining $22,000 needed for the program to be offered locally.

“It looks like there are enough potential funding sources that this can move forward,” said Ucluelet Coun. Marilyn McEwen.

Wheels for Wellness society member Don Buchner brought the program to the West Coast for a three-month pilot program that kicked off in January.

The program saw 24 participants in January and 41 in February and McEwen expects these numbers to continue rising.

“There hasn’t been a lot of advertising for this because they didn’t want to advertise something that was not going to continue here on the West Coast but now that the parties have agreed to continue the program there will be a lot more advertising and information,” she said.

Tofino’s manager of community sustainability Aaron Rodgers told the Westerly News the program would provide a valuable service to West Coasters.

“The Wheels for Wellness program allows us to address medical travel at no cost to the residents other than this initial seed money,” he said.

“We think this is a valuable program to maintain and increase health outcomes in Tofino; we know that transportation is a problem for a lot of people.”

He noted the program has proven successful in other communities and said the West Coast’s participation will connect locals to a larger network of care providers.

“This will be the first brick in the wall for solving some of our regional transportation problems and we’re looking forward to getting this done,” he said.

“We see it as a piece of the regional transportation puzzle and one that is an achievable first step for us.”

He said the “shelf-ready” program carried a relatively low cost and he agreed with McEwen that the participant numbers would likely rise as more people become aware of the service.

“As we publicize this it’s going to, most likely, continue to increase,” he said.

He said the West Coast would continue tackling transportation issues and noted Tofino has invested $2,000 of this year’s budget into exploring a regional transit system between Tofino and Ucluelet.

Don Buchner was thrilled to see the West Coast pick up the program and told the Westerly he was “amazed” by the local support.

“The community spirit is just awesome,” he said.

“They’ve stepped up to the plate. Other places that we’ve gone to do the same kind of pilot project haven’t done that; they expected it all to be given to them, but here they were willing to do something for it so we’re really tickled with that.”

He said the program’s three-month pilot project proved the service is needed on the Coast.

“From our perspective, if we get 10 per cent of the total population over a 12-month period we’re doing good,” he said.

“Costs are not as high as I anticipated and, as far as the overall picture is concerned, I would expect it to go over the 10 per cent. If we can go 600-700 passengers a year it’ll be great.”

He said volunteer drivers are needed and anyone willing to lend a hand is encouraged to contact him at jdbuchner@shaw.ca or 250-897-6359.