After crashing his motorcycle into a tree while going 65 miles per hour in 1987, Jim Ray was left with spinal injuries that would require surgery and years of physical therapy.
Unable to work and a year removed from his service in the Army, he found himself without a home and a car to drive to his doctor’s appointments at the Veterans Affairs clinic. He would find rides when he could, but sometimes would have to settle for walking through 45 minutes of intermittent pain and inclement weather on his way to the VA clinic in northeast Santa Maria. Other times he would miss his appointments entirely.
Then, early this year, the clinic began a program to shuttle veterans to and from their appointments. Now, he uses it twice a week to get to his therapy sessions. The 45-pound backpack containing his belongings, which he must take with him when he leaves the homeless shelter to protect it from theft, now rides with him in a van instead of weighing on his spine.
“I’m grateful for that,” he said.
The program provides 95 to 100 rides for people like Ray every month, according to VA Voluntary Service Specialist Larry Foster. The drivers, who put in about 100 volunteer hours every month for the program, are mostly veterans themselves, he said. They drive almost everywhere on the Central Coast between Paso Robles and Santa Barbara.
Many of the people who ask for rides have little income, live far away from a VA clinic or simply don’t own a vehicle.
“(It’s) very helpful, especially for a lot of guys who are even further out than Santa Maria (who) ain’t got no way of getting here,” Ray said. “It’s a shame, but hopefully we can figure out a way we can reach out and help them more often.”
Because Ray’s doctors aren’t sure about the timeline of his recovery, he’ll continue needing rides to the clinic for his physical therapy. But soon, Ray said, he wants to find a place to live, go back to school and find work — maybe in counseling for drug and alcohol addiction, which he’s struggled with before.
The shuttle program so far has six donated vans and about 30 drivers, but is looking to grow, Foster said. None of the vans is wheelchair-accessible, and occasionally there isn’t a driver or vehicle available to pick up a veteran and the ride has to be canceled.
Mel Raveling, one of the volunteer drivers and a former member of the Air Force, said the program gave him something to do during retirement.
“You start looking for things to do to take care of your time, then all of a sudden you start (thinking), ‘Wait a minute, maybe I can help somebody,’” he said. “It’s a good feeling, and it makes you want to come back.”