No cancer patient should have to worry about a ride to chemotherapy, believes Sherry Higgs, founder and executive director of Drivers For Survivors.
"When somebody is going through treatment, they shouldn't have to be begging for a ride," she said. "They are already struggling."
Higgs was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer in February 2010 at the age of 43.
"At first they thought it was an infection, but then they knew immediately it was not only cancer but one of the most aggressive," she said. "It was a long year, filled with everything you can imagine -- multiple surgeries, chemo -- and I was not allowed to drive."
"I saw people taking public transportation or alone in the lobby," she remembered. "I could see the anxiety: They would be skimming a magazine, putting it down, picking it up and putting it down again."
After her year of treatment, Higgs wanted to do something positive for others facing cancer. She decided to focus on transportation needs and started Drivers For Survivors.
The group first emphasized the transportation aspect but it soon became clear that companionship plays a key role.
"We actually do a questionnaire so we know the interests of the clients and the volunteers," Higgs said. "We have a unique companionship factor -- and it is free."
Cancer survivor Paulina Sternfeld had to go frequently to Stanford Medical Center for radiation and her close relatives could not get off work so she turned to Drivers For Survivors. She and her driver, Jane Bueno, appear in a promotional video on www.DriversForSurvivors.org.
"We have a lot of things in common, and we have laughed so much," Sternfeld said. "We go together to lunch, so in this moment I forget about the cancer. I come home a little bit lighter."
"I am retired and I wanted to help in some way. And I like to drive," Bueno said. "We just clicked the first day."
Cancer treatments can be intensive, Higgs said, with clients requiring six to 20 rides per month. Once she decided on her mission, she began to create a business plan.
"I'm a natural trouble shooter," said Higgs, who worked for 15 years as a Fortune 500 company account executive. "I had sit-downs with various community members in 2011."
"Transportation nonprofits are one of the most challenging because you are dealing with the liability factor," she noted.
She attended events and forums, giving talks, and people responded, suggesting likeminded organizations and individuals who might help.
Drivers for Survivors began in December 2012 in Fremont, Newark and Union City and expanded service areas to Hayward, San Leandro, Castro Valley and San Lorenzo in 2017. It has served 527 people, giving more than 19,147 rides, and working with more than 200 medical providers. It provides rides to within 60 miles of the office's Fremont ZIP code, 94538.
Funding comes from the Alameda County Transportation Commission, through Measure B and Measure BB tax dollars; Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Section 5310, Eden Health District, charitable individuals, organizations and businesses.
In July, Drivers For Survivors came to the Tri-Valley, and Higgs is meeting with local medical providers and talking to service clubs to spread the word and find drivers and donations.
Clients find them through medical providers, friends and paratransit services, and fill out a physician statement that is signed by their oncology team.
"Sometimes they call to tell me their appointments, sometimes we call the provider when the schedule is not clear," administrative director Deasy Lai said. "Sometimes the doctor's office calls us."
Drivers must provide at least one ride every three months, and the volunteers appreciate this flexibility. Lai said they use a company to do a background check and verify driving records, which must be clean for the past five years.
Lai, who has been doing the scheduling for the past four years, said clients often request certain drivers.
"They will say, 'Can you check if John is available? He's really nice and takes care of me,'" she said.
Clients are generous with thank you cards and donations, Higgs said, as well as volunteering their skills. Grant writing is also a need, as are letter writers and ambassadors to be the face of the organization.
Serendipity, as well as hard work, has played a part in the success of Drivers For Survivors, Higgs said, noting, "When you decide to do some good for humanity, the universe conspires to make it happen."
Plans are to expand to Oakland and north Alameda County in 2020.
"We have a five years grant, starting this year in July," Lai explained. "The first phase is the Tri-Valley."
For more information, visit www.DriversForSurvivors.org or call (510) 896-8056.
Fundraising is key
Drivers For Survivors' sixth Black and White Ball will be held at Castlewood Country Club on April 18, with a goal this year of $120,000. The organization is seeking sponsors as well as donations for the live and silent auctions. The annual Holiday Pancake Breakfast with Santa will take place in Newark on Dec. 14.