As minister of Trinity United Church in Fort Macleod, Rev. Eras Van Zyl is attuned to the programs that serve his parishioners — and the rest of the community.
The Fort Macleod Handibus Society operates one of those programs. A non-profit group run by a volunteer board of directors, the society is charged with maintaining and operating the handibus service.
In a small town such as Fort Macleod, with a population of just over 3,100, transportation is a key issue for some seniors and other people who do not own vehicles.
The Fort Macleod Handibus operates Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. during summer months. Saturday service from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. commences in mid October and continues until the end of April.
Bus fare is $3 per ride. People can also buy a $30 bus pass for 12 trips or a $90 monthly pass for an unlimited number of rides. Fares charged cover about 40 per cent of operating costs.
For close to a quarter of a century the handibus has picked up and delivered residents around Fort Macleod, helping them get to doctor’s appointments, social functions and other destinations.
By providing people with needed transportation, the Fort Macleod Handibus also allows people to maintain their independence. In 2010 the Fort Macleod Handibus provided 5,946 rides.
“It is an essential service to the community,” handibus society president David Hughes said.
The handibus society operates the service with financial help from the Town of Fort Macleod, the MD of Willow Creek and donations from organizations, businesses and individuals. it is an ongoing challenge for the society to keep user fees low and still have enough money to pay for gasoline, the driver’s wages and ongoing maintenance.
Rev. Van Zyl learned the 10-year-old handibus was having increasing mechanical problems. He even joined driver Don Doherty for a ride one day to check things out for himself.
Rev. Van Zyl also talked to Hughes, who explained that in addition to needing money to maintain the present bus, the society will soon need to buy a replacement — valued at about $135,000.
That’s when the United Church minister decided to do his part to keep the wheels on the handibus going ’round and ’round. An avid cyclist, Rev. Van Zyl decided to undertake a long distance ride to raise some money and bring attention to the plight of the handibus society.
Rev. Van Zyl at the end of September cycled from Kimberley, B.C. to Fort Macleod over three days, a journey of more than 300 kilometres. David Hughes in his camper served as the support crew.
The ride went smoothly, and when Rev. Van Zyl cycled along Fort Macleod’s historic Main Street donations to the handibus had already topped $5,000. Little did Rev. Van Zyl or the handibus society know, that was just the tip of the iceberg.
“We had absolutely no idea the response would be as good as it was,” David Hughes said. “More than anything, Eras doing that ride brought an awareness to a service most of us take for granted.”
Fort Macleod service organizations, businesses, individuals and even the Mustangs senior hockey team continued to respond to the handibus society’s call for help.
In three months the fund-raising effort has topped $51,000, including a $16,000 grant from the Town of Fort Macleod, which represented money council had budgeted for replacement of the handibus.
“We’re very, very excited and proud of the community for stepping up,” Hughes said.
The Fort Macleod Handibus Society has over the years budgeted for the purchase of a new bus, so with the $51,000 from the community it is close to having the money it needs to buy the new bus. It has a ways to go yet, though, including word on a grant of close to $13,000 from the Alberta Community Spirit program.
“We want to make sure we’ve get the money in the bank,” Hughes said. “We’re not going to order anything until we have all the money in place.
At present handibus society members are visiting other communities to look at the various types of handibuses that are being used. Particularly intriguing is a model that is slightly bigger and lower to the ground than the present bus. The one that is lower to the ground puts less wear and tear on the lift system used for wheelchairs, which requires considerable service on the present bus. It sells for about $135,000.
“We want to make sure the community gets the best bus for its money,” Hughes said. “We’ve definitely got out eye on the best bus for the community.”
Anyone interested in donating to the handibus society can call David Hughes at 403-553-3388.