By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOILIS (WCCO) — Volunteers are needed everywhere right now. And in rural Minnesota, volunteer drivers are in especially high demand.

An aging population means demand is up, but the number of drivers available is at an all-time low.

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Even in retirement, Lila Rekedal is as busy as ever. She’s a volunteer driver for Central Community Transit in Willmar.

“Today I have one person at 12:15, take her someplace, then pick somebody up at 12:45 and take her someplace,” said Rekedal.

Coordinators give her a schedule, and Rekedal uses her own car to pick up people who need a lift.

“Some days she would have like six rides if I want to do all morning and all afternoon,” said Rekedal. “But sometimes I need to go home and wash clothes or something [laughs]!”

CCT covers three counties, and they estimate they are down more than 20 drivers right now. Just a couple years ago, volunteer drivers were giving rides to one or two people a day. Now, they are picking up four or five people a day and they could pick up more.

(credit: CBS)

“A lot of people are a little nervous being close to people in their own cars, things like that,” said Tiffany Collins, CCT’s transit director. “But also people have just decided not to volunteer to do that.”

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The pandemic has played a role, but Collins said the lack of volunteers has been a growing problem for years. Older people are choosing to stay in their rural homes longer, but still need rides to get groceries or to doctor’s appointments. In some cases, they have to wait a couple days until a driver becomes available.

“The challenges are there is no Uber, Lyft, a lot of care cab-type vehicles, or private companies,” said Collins.

Which makes volunteer drivers like Rekedal invaluable.

“I would be lost without a vehicle, and they’re always there for me,” said Jean Radunz who lives in Willmar and utilizes the service. “I call them and they are always there.”

Volunteers are reimbursed for mileage and meals. And thanks to new legislation, they won’t be taxed on any reimbursement. But even with those incentives, it’ll take time before this service is up to speed.

“You start getting, you know, west of here, south of here, north of here — the need exists all over the state,” said Collins.

Thanks to recent legislation, volunteer drivers also won’t see an increase in their insurance premiums.

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Click here for more information on volunteering.

John Lauritsen