GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s a program that’s helped low-income seniors in West Michigan get rides to and from medical appointments for free for more than 60 years. But now, the American Red Cross announced it will discontinue its transportation program by the end of June 2017.
It’s been a widely successful program, providing the free rides for some 1,500 people each year — mostly seniors — in both Kent and Barry counties.
Among them is 77-year-old Bill Fejedelem. His kidneys are failing and he goes to the doctor three times a week for dialysis treatments. Fejedelem’s wife Charla isn’t healthy enough to regularly drive him herself. The pair can’t afford to pay for his trips and say they don’t qualify for other free transportation programs. That’s why Bill Fejedelem has relied on the Red Cross to get to his appointments for more than a year.
Tuesday, his driver told him the program was being discontinued.
“My first thought is, ‘I’m gonna die.’ (My wife’s) not going to be able to take me to dialysis, and I can’t go myself. So I’m just gonna sit here and watch TV till the end,” Fejedelem told 24 Hour News 8.
Mike Mitchell, executive director of the American Red Cross of West Michigan, said the transportation program already has the vehicles it needs. It also has the drivers — about 140 — all of whom are volunteers. Plus, there’s funding committed regularly each year through grants and donations.
So why discontinue the program?
“We’re finding across the country more organizations like the Red Cross are finding themselves having to focus narrowly on their mission,” Mitchell told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday.
The Red Cross has decided to refocus on its core mission, which includes services like disaster relief and blood drives, among other things — not a medical transportation program.
The decision to discontinue it came from national headquarters.
24 Hour News 8 spoke to volunteer drivers off camera who were puzzled by the move.
“Let’s back up and say it’s not being shut down,” Mitchell said. “We have every intention of having somebody take over the program and have it take over just as it is today.”
That’s the good news. There have been serious discussions with another nonprofit about taking over next June. Despite skepticism from some of the people those involved in the program, Mitchell’s hope is that it would be run just as it is now and remain totally free.
“At this moment I would say they (clients) don’t have any need at all to be concerned,” he said. “I’m that confident that we’re going to have somebody taking over this program in short order.”
Now, Fejedelem and his wife are left crossing their fingers.
“We’re optimistic that something else will replace (it),” he said.
“We hope. We hope,” Charla Fejedelem added.
Mitchell said a similar program in Muskegon County will continue because it also helps deliver blood to hospitals.
Tuesday, the Red Cross notified volunteer drivers of the plans to discontinue the program. It had planned to notify clients and donors Wednesday before word of the change hit the news, but wanted to respond to 24 Hour News 8’s request for an interview Tuesday afternoon.—–Online: American Red Cross