Faith in Action for Cass County volunteer driving program builds community by filling gaps in need

Faith in Action for Cass County graphic

Cass County in central Minnesota includes a landscape of beautiful lakes and the Chippewa National Forest. With a population density of some 15 people per square mile and smaller cities scattered throughout the county, going places — shopping, seeing the doctor, even visiting relatives — can be challenging for those without access to transportation.

When Faith in Action for Cass County formed in 2001, it immediately looked at addressing the lack of transportation in the widespread Cass County community. 

“Faith in Action saw a big need in the county,” said Theresa Eclov, executive director for the non-profit. “There were really no transportation options for most people.” 

Based on a national model, Faith in Action for Cass County leverages partnerships and coordinates volunteers who come from all walks of life, including churches and civic organizations, with the aim of helping community members.

“We’re not here to be the answer to everyone, but we are here to fill the gaps,” Eclov said. Transportation continues as a top concern according to a recent community needs assessment.

The Faith in Action for Cass County volunteer driver program is virtually as old as the organization. It serves all of Cass County with about 100 volunteer drivers who completed 2,130 one-way rides last year that covered 107,730 miles. Often those trips take them out of the county to St. Cloud, Fargo, Duluth, the Twin Cities, and Rochester for medical appointments.

Approximately 80% of calls to Faith in Action request transportation to medical appointments, but volunteers drive community members for other reasons as well. “We take individuals to court hearings. We have folks that need to get to the food shelf or pick up things from thrift stores,” she said. “We do take folks to church, hair appointments, and social events.”

Faith in Action coordinates rides with efficiency in mind, which means a driver may pick up several passengers, maybe one with a medical appointment and another who needs to shop in the vicinity of the medical appointment. Volunteers choose what they are willing to do and when.

While Faith in Action recruits 15 to 20 new volunteers each year, it also loses 20 to 25 volunteers each year, partly because of concerns over mileage reimbursement and, with an average volunteer driver age of 73, because of age.

The connections that community members make through the program strengthen communities. “I really think the volunteer driving program is a community building program,” Eclov said.

When it started its volunteer driver program, the nonprofit decided not to charge any fees for transportation, relying instead of grants and donations. “I don’t think we would have made it with a fee-for-service model,” Eclov said. “We have received much more support from the community. That’s how we serve, by the grace of the community.”

Faith in Action volunteers also fill other community needs — whether home repairs, friendly visits, caregiver respite, or technology assistance. Eclov doesn’t see any end to the demand for transportation, especially since the city of Pine River recently ended its local bus service. Eclov welcomes the growth.

“We are here for one another, and we want our community to thrive,” she said. “Together we can do amazing things.”