The volunteers helping our sick and elderly
SEVENTEEN years after Winifred Playford first volunteered to drive Carrie Kennedy to see her doctor, the two women have become firm friends.
"She never lost her cool," Mrs Kennedy says, describing the time she suddenly felt chest pains on her way home from hospital and had to be returned immediately, "and Winifred didn't leave the hospital until my daughter got there."
"Carrie said 'I'll be right, just take me home' but I said 'no, you stay right here'," Mrs Playford says, placing her hand over Mrs Kennedy's.
"When Winifred says 'stay here', well, there's no use arguing," Mrs Kennedy says with a laugh and Shirley Smith, Mrs Playford's fellow founder of the Uniting Care Transport Team, joins in.
The three women have stopped briefly en route to Lismore Base Hospital, where Mrs Kennedy is due for a regular specialist appointment. She has to go "a fair bit", she says.
Mrs Kennedy lives about 30km away in Casino and doesn't have her own means of transport.
She has family on the Northern Rivers but her daughter earns a living in Lismore and cannot afford to miss work to chauffeur her mother.
It's a familiar scenario for most patients relying on Casino's transport team: They're in a small town where specialist medical services and public transport are almost non-existent.
"The 2.30am train pulls into Brisbane at 5am," says Mrs Smith, "then patients who are already unwell have to find transport from Roma St to wherever the medical services are and catch a 2.30pm bus back, getting in at 6pm."
Getting to the Casino train station at 2.30am is not easy, either. Patients can book taxis but getting drivers out of bed in the early morning hours is a challenge, the women say.
When a local government transport sub-committee held a meeting on access, disability and transport in Casino nearly 20 years ago, Mrs Smith went "to investigate".
She had driven for a government-funded group now known as HART, which offers similar services to those of the Casino team.
The team is ineligible for government funding, Mrs Smith says, because it's officially considered a "duplicate" of HART.
But there are crucial differences and Mrs Smith says the two organisations work "hand in glove so that the whole community can be covered".
Funding for HART comes with strict rules, Mrs Smith says, including a geographical limit which is the New South Wales/Queensland border.
"They ask us to go over the border," she says, referring to the regular communication she maintains with staff at HART.
Appointments for chronic medical conditions are also exempt from HART funding, says Mrs Smith, as are pick-ups from nursing homes.
If it goes down the drain, what would happen?
She says volunteer drivers from the team often collect patients from nursing homes in Kyogle, Coraki, Casino, Lismore and elsewhere on the Northern Rivers.
"It does worry people like me if it goes down the drain. What would happen?" Mrs Kennedy says.
The organisation runs on community donations and fundraisers - there will be a Lamington drive in March - and recently qualified for a $3800 council grant.
Demand for the service has increased by more than 6000% since Mrs Playford and Mrs Smith undertook their first trip on November 8, 1999, when drivers used to travel in pairs.
Mrs Smith says 53 volunteers now cover a range of duties including administration, management, fundraising, driving and a 24-hour telephone response service.
"Elderly people don't like talking to answering machines," Mrs Playford says.
Mrs Smith no longer drives and says Mrs Playford is "the last of the Mohicans" for original volunteer drivers.
This year the group will employ its first paid administration officer and will no doubt need to sell a lot of Lamingtons.
Mrs Smith said anyone interested in volunteering was invited to call 02 6662 7940 and to ask for Janelle or Sandra.