Just keep driving

A pearl white bus, with the Solid Ground logo painted on the side, pulls up to the Harborview Medical Center on the corner of 9th and Alder. As the doors slide open, the bionic whine of the wheelchair ramp greets us. The ramp does not discriminate between those who need it and those who don’t. Every passenger, whether able-bodied or living with disabilities, benefits from one fewer step to climb. This is the Downtown Circulator Bus – a free transportation service that drives a 30-minute fixed route in downtown Seattle.

Circulator 006MK

Circulator bus driver Joe McCrea

We drive from one side of downtown to the other. Pass the hospital. Pass the ACRS Food Bank, the Public Library, Pike Place Market. Pass the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). Every stop along the route was specifically chosen for the practical help it provides to people living on low incomes or who need access to health and human services.

The driver, Joe, is easygoing and genuine. He’s humble about the service he provides, briefly commenting, “The people who use [the bus] can use the financial help.” But he’s careful not to put people in boxes, recognizing that the $2.50 Metro fare is “kind of a lot, for a lot of people,” and that working class people compose a significant portion of the riders. A lot of people just ride the bus – in fact, will take the whole route around – to get from the bottom of the hill to the top. The biggest issue for many people is the hills.

I look around the bus to face an eclectic group of passengers. The high proportion of riders with injuries and disabilities creates an in-the-moment reminder of why the Circulator Bus is necessary – to get people the services they so clearly need. We pass the Downtown Public Health Center, the Community Psychiatric Clinic.

Two passengers in the back chat amiably for 10 minutes before exchanging names and phone numbers. Passengers voice observations about the constant construction, the ever-taller Seattle. They notice things out their windows. A man named Dean calls me over by name. He overheard me introduce myself to the driver and jokes that Joe always tries to hit the potholes. He asks me about my hometown, and shares how important the Circulator has been for getting him to his appointments. His warmth shakes me. There is a certain humanity here not present on the average Metro bus.

We round out the 30-minute trip on Boren Ave, passing The Salvation Army. Soon we’re at the hospital where we started. He tells me how positive his experience driving the Circulator Bus has been. I believe him. He shares that his mantra is to just keep driving. I think we need him to.

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Appreciate your transit drivers TODAY!

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March 18 is Transit Driver Appreciation Day, and Solid Ground wants to take a moment to do just that. Our Solid Ground Transportation (SGT) employs 107 ACCESS van and Downtown Circulator Bus drivers who work diligently to make sure that people who struggle to ride the regular King County Metro bus system have safe, reliable transportation to medical appointments, and can stay connected with family, friends and their community. THANK YOU to all of our fabulous drivers! Here are just a few fun facts highlighting the amazing work that the SGT team achieves, and don’t forget to appreciate your bus or transit driver today!

  • SGT ACCESS drivers transport over 300,000 riders each year.
  • SGT is the only nonprofit organization providing ACCESS service for King County Metro.
  • All SGT drivers are required to complete approximately 22 hours of training every year.
  • Drivers are only given seven minutes to board and secure a passenger using a wheelchair or scooter.
  • The Solid Ground Circulator has provided over 130,000 rides to date.
  • Drivers are given only 15 minutes before their route to check 86 items on their bus before departing the lot.
  • Drivers are required to recertify every two years in CPR/First Aid, Smith System Defensive Driving and Passenger Safety and Security.
  • Drivers are required to flex their regular start times + or – 60 minutes and must check for their next day’s start time every night after 7pm. They could start as early at 3:45am!
  • Much like postal workers, all SGT essential employees are required to show up for work, even in snow, rain, extreme heat and the gloom of night!
  • SGT operates up to 90 routes daily, nearly 24/7, 365 days per year and do that all with just 6 dispatchers, 7 supervisors, 8 technicians and 107 drivers, 4 of whom drive the Circulator.
  • Drivers can have as many as 14 passengers on their bus at one time all going to different locations.
  • There are vehicles in the system with well over 400,000 miles driven.
  • On the first day of service, the Solid Ground Circulator carried only 74 riders. Today, they average over 300 riders per day.
  • The longest routes will drive over 300 miles in a single day.
  • SGT employees represent over 30 different countries around the world!

Read more about the admirable work of Solid Ground Transportation drivers in past Solid Ground Blog posts:

  • They are our family describes a day in the life of an ACCESS driver, and the passengers who depend upon this service.
  • A really good marriage highlights the 45-year marriage of Solid Ground Transit employees Ninus and Kathy Hopkins.
  • Driving from the Heart & Out of Love is a short video showcasing Ninus and Kathy’s devotion to their selfless work and to each other. They have been driving the elderly and people living with disabilities to appointments throughout Seattle for over 26 years, and as a mixed-race couple, they have endured countless acts of prejudice and racism. Still, they serve in a spirit of community and love.

 

November 2014 Groundviews: ‘A really good marriage’

Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is the November 2014 Groundviews lead story; please visit our website to read the entire issue online.

Ninus & Kathy Hopkins, Solid Ground Transportation Access Drivers (photo by John Bolivar Photography)

Ninus & Kathy Hopkins, Solid Ground Transportation Access Drivers (photo by John Bolivar Photography)

Ninus & Kathy Hopkins have been married for 45 beautiful years, and for more than half of those, they have both worked as Access Drivers for the Solid Ground Transportation (SGT) department. The kind of couple who lovingly finish each others’ sentences, they are now the longest-serving drivers on the team.

They were drawn to this work in the late ‘80s when they saw a driver help someone in a wheelchair get out of a van at the hospital where they were visiting Ninus’ mother. Ninus says, “This individual kind of lit a match in our vision and said, ‘Hey, this is what I do, and I like it. And if you want to try it, I’ll give you some information.’ I was kind of reluctant, but Kathy said, ‘Let’s do it!’”

Kathy adds, “Compliments to that person, because here we are, 26 years later.” But she says they wondered, “ ‘Are they even gonna hire a husband and wife? Let’s not tell them!’ But they took a chance, and they did!”

Today, Kathy and Ninus are among 110 SGT drivers who operate a fleet of 75 Access vehicles – providing door-to-door rides to appointments and services for adults who physically cannot access the fixed-route Metro bus system – as well as two buses for the Downtown Circulator fixed-route service.

‘We’re family’
Originally named Seattle Personal Transit, the program was launched in the late ‘80s by a Jesuit volunteer who drove people to appointments in a beat-up old van. The service soon combined with another small operation under the wing of Solid Ground’s predecessor, Fremont Public Association (FPA). Kathy comments, “I think it was a really good marriage for what Seattle Personal Transit was offering the community. We knew we were getting bigger, and it fit under that umbrella. It all meant helping somebody get what they needed, whether it’d be medical, or just social, or nutrition. It fit.”

Ninus reminisces, “Then, we said, ‘We’re family.’ We started building trust between each employee, and that’s what brought us [to be] successful in partnership. We decided this is where we belong – a fountain of knowledge, ready to tell everybody how happy we were to do this type of work.”

‘More than just drivers’
Back when Kathy and Ninus started driving, there were fewer than 10 drivers operating a fleet of approximately seven vehicles, only two of which had side-loading wheelchair lifts. (Today, all SGT vehicles are equipped with wheelchair loading apparatus and space to accommodate multiple wheelchairs and/or walkers.) The small size of the program and regular routes allowed for a connection between drivers and passengers – “And their families! And their pets!” interjects Kathy – that just isn’t possible with today’s varied routes and packed timetables.

“We were more than just drivers; it wasn’t just rides,” Kathy reflects, “We were the lookout.” For some passengers, she says, “Unless you communicated with their family – like, ‘She’s not remembering her keys,’ or ‘He’s not remembering to put socks on with his shoes’ – it might not be evident to them. They don’t see them every day, but I do. And if I could share that with them, then they could intervene: ‘Maybe they need a doctor’s visit.’ We were there to give them that information.”

Ninus reflects, “We were the eyes of the community, and we were there for safety.” He describes an incident where a visually impaired person began crossing the street into traffic. “I remember stopping the van, getting out when it was safe, running out, grabbing that person, tapping them on the shoulder saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait! You’re crossing the wrong way!’ And bringing them back to the corner and waiting for the light, and then taking them across the street safely.”

Ninus & Kathy Hopkins, Solid Ground Transportation Access Drivers (photo by John Bolivar Photography)

Ninus & Kathy Hopkins, Solid Ground Transportation Access Drivers (photo by John Bolivar Photography)

A labor of love
As a mixed-race couple who married in the heart of the Civil Rights era and raised biracial children, Kathy and Ninus have experienced some of the worst of our nation’s racist realities, and this has sometimes extended to their work as drivers. Ninus reflects, “In the begin [sic], it was watch what you say, and be careful of how you approach somebody, and stand back and reach out, and don’t try to touch anybody unless they needed your assistance. We were very careful to be professional … but still be there to assist.”

Ninus survived some devastating experiences, including passengers setting their dogs on him, and one incident where a woman placed a handkerchief on his arm before she would accept his help so she wouldn’t have to touch his skin. Yet somehow, Ninus and Kathy consistently maintain compassion.

Ninus says, “This job is done from the heart and out of love. Every day, there’s some things that’ll make you cry, and some things that’ll make you giggle. Your motives are to be professional, to be caring, to be safe … to be a warm spirit. You always offer hope.” Kathy adds, “It wasn’t anything that deterred us from giving them that TLC that they needed to survive or get where they needed to go.”

“This is a job that everybody can’t do,” Ninus admits. “It takes a special type of person to take that extra step. And we’re blessed to be in an environment [and] shine by doing that extra step. And that’s just like our marriage: 45! Forty-five years!”

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