KATONAH, N.Y. - For 10 years, RideConnect of Family Services of Westchester has been providing much-needed free transportation to seniors and those in need throughout northern Westchester and Putnam County for things such as doctor appointments, grocery shopping and other errands. But when the pandemic struck earlier this year, suddenly there was no place to go and RideConnect volunteers ran out of clients.
“When the April 1 shutdown came and no one was going anywhere, I thought, what can we do to help?” said Karen Ganis, a Mahopac resident and director of RideConnect.
Ganis came up with the idea for “Shop and Drop,” a service in which RideConnect will grocery shop for clients, especially seniors and the immune-compromised, and then drop the packages off at the front door. She put the idea out on Facebook and within one weekend had more than 300 volunteers sign up. That number is now up to 600.
“What we do is twofold. First, the volunteer connects with the client to work out the details and then will do shopping for free and drop off the groceries,” she explained. “Second, we have worked with the local pantries and the volunteers will go there and pick up groceries or hot meals and deliver them. We have worked with quite of few, most recently with the United Way in Carmel. And we’ve worked with Open Door in northern Westchester.”
Ganis said that since April, RideConnect has made more than 10,000 grocery or food pantry deliveries.
“There is a lot of food insecurity in Putnam and Westchester counties,” she said. “The generosity of the volunteers stepping up to help says a lot to the people in the area.”
While the “ride” service part of RideConnect has waned during the pandemic, the program still continues that vital amenity.
“We always had critical medical appointments like dialysis or chemo and about a month ago we reopened for all medical rides,” Ganis said. “But we are still on pause for social things like trips to the library. We are doing it carefully, thoughtfully and safely.”
Ganis said adding the shopping aspect to the service isn’t cheap and the agency will need more funding eventually.
“Without funding it’s not something we could sustain,” she said. “Right now, we are fine, but we’ll need some financial help eventually. We are trying to be optimistic about COVID going away sooner rather than later. But now that I see the need for it, if we can get the funding to sustain it, I would love to continue to do it. There is a need.”
Ganis said she was actually surprised by how great the need was for the service.
“I was amazed not just by the demand [for the service], but the outpouring of volunteers,” she said. “I couldn’t keep up with all the emails from people who wanted to help—from the most southern parts of Westchester into Putnam and even beyond.”
Volunteering is completely flexible, and volunteers can offer as much or as little time as they can spare.
Dot Berman has been working as a RideConnect volunteer for about two years.
“What it does is allow me help people but on my own schedule,” she said. “I love to meet new people and my GPS has made it painless. I love to drive, and I feel good at the end of the day because I helped someone. It checks all the boxes.”
Vince Pitruzzello lives in Yorktown and has been a RideConnect volunteer for more than six years. He has been doing a lot of Shop and Drop since the program started.
“I still go to a lot of doctor appointments, but food deliveries have increased a lot,” he said. “You have to wear a mask, but it’s very rewarding. People need help. Today, for me, it was just a matter of dropping off some prepared meals. But you can get a call and get a [grocery] list and then go food shopping. That can be a challenge if they want a certain brand name, but in the end it’s all good because they really appreciate it. You get a lot of smiles.”
Pitruzzello’s wife, Gina, is also a RideConnect volunteer, and he says they average one to two missions a week.
“It varies,” he said. “It doesn’t take a lot of time though. And the RideConnect people are really good. They are very well organized.”
RideConnect is based in Katonah but serves both Westchester and Putnam counties. Call 914-242-7433 and the transportation counselors will assist you. Or access the website at www.rideconnectwestchester.org.