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The Van Wert County Courthouse

Friday, Aug. 18, 2017

KATE O’CONNELL/independent feature writer

Convoy to Van Wert County Hospital: $10. Van Wert to Fort Wayne International Airport; $41. Middle Point to Ohio State University: $118.

Liberty Mobility driver Sheila Mendoza poses with her Jeep Liberty, with the Liberty Mobility sticker on it. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent

Liberty Mobility driver Sheila Mendoza poses with her Jeep Liberty, with the Liberty Mobility sticker on it. Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent

Wherever area residents want to go, Liberty Mobility Now will provide transportation for $1 a mile, plus a small booking fee.

The Nebraska-based company started its rural transportation service in Van Wert County in February. Locals can get rides for any reason — medical appointments, employment, shopping excursions, or a safe ride home after a night out.

Transportation assistance was the top unmet need of clients of the Van Wert County United Way in 2015, according to Executive Director Vickie Smith. The United Way, Van Wert County Hospital and the county health department collaborated in the effort to find a solution and fill the gap.

“We felt like Liberty could meet the need in our rural area,” Smith said, adding that Liberty was discovered by a representative from Area Agency on Aging 3 during a conference in Columbus.

The service has already made a big impact on the life of one resident.

Liberty worked with West Ohio Community Action Partnership to provide transportation to and from work for a man in his early 30s without a license or car.

“For the last month Liberty has been taking him to and from work. He has been able to maintain that job and he’s been able to get an income so he can eventually get his license back,” said Kim Bruns, northwest Ohio area manager for Liberty. “For me, that’s been very exciting to see how it’s been working and really helping the community, one individual at a time.”

Mindy Eales, employment and training coordinator at WOCAP, said the man participated in the Steps to Success program offered by the agency, where he received assistance with writing a resume, filling out applications, and doing well at interviews, but he had difficulty finding employment because he lacked transportation.

“Since he completed our program we were able to cover the cost of the transportation for a predetermined amount of time, allowing him to save for his license and car,” Eales said. “Liberty has been excellent to work with, they respond quickly to questions or concerns and are extremely helpful.”

Liberty has hired 13 drivers, who work as independent contractors and use their own vehicles. The drivers work whenever they want and find passengers through the Liberty Mobility app, available through the Apple Store and Google Play.

“We have a couple people who have retired, a couple others have full-time jobs and drive when they are not working for supplemental income,” Bruns said. “How the app works … when the passenger requests a trip it goes to the first available driver in the closest range. After 90 seconds it goes to the next driver.”

Drivers go through an orientation and receive customer service and health awareness training. They also are put through background and drug tests. Vehicles are also inspected.

“We have many safeguards in place,” Bruns said, who added that drivers earn 80 cents of every dollar collected.

The short-term goal is to hire a fleet of 20 drivers to ensure access to riders throughout a 24-hour cycle.

For those who don’t have the technology to use the app, a call center will soon be operating in Nebraska.

“The call center will make the service available for all,” Bruns said.

Liberty is also developing an online portal for agencies to schedule rides for clients up to one month in advance.  Agencies will be billed by Liberty and may be able to get reimbursement from the United Way, Smith said.

Eales said the service has changed things for the agency.

“Transportation is one barrier that we hear consistently from our clients,” she noted. “By having this new resource available, the opportunities for our clients have expanded. Clients now have a larger selection of locations to find employment and training.”

Van Wert is the first location for Liberty’s rural service, but the company expects to have the service operating soon in six other communities, including the Ohio community of Athens and towns in Nebraska.

Smith said $2,500 from The United Way’s New Initiative Fund, which was matched by the hospital, was given to Liberty to initiate the service. Company representatives assured the agencies that the funds would be utilized in Van Wert County.

“Success will be measured not in the amount of rides the company offers, but in the stories and lives of people who will be touched by this service,” Smith said. “There are a lot of sides to this we haven’t even ventured to see yet.”

POSTED: 04/12/17 at 12:06 am. FILED UNDER: News