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Cancer society B.C. wing drops free rides for patients

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Cancer Society is scrapping a volunteer driver program that offers patients free rides to cancer treatment on Vancouver Island.

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Cancer Society is scrapping a volunteer driver program that offers patients free rides to cancer treatment on Vancouver Island.

The 25-year-old program, which also operated in parts of Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, served about 80 people a month and cost the society $400,000 a year.

It will shut down Oct. 6.

The society said it made the move because of falling ridership, fewer volunteers and declines in charitable donations.

At the same time, other programs that offer a similar transportation service have sprung up around the province, said Sandra Krueckl, vice-president of cancer control.

“It was certainly a very difficult decision for us to come to, but a necessary one,” she said.

“The charitable sector in general has seen declines in revenue, so it makes it necessary, sometimes, to make choices to not do quite as many things as you used to do.”

She said the society paid staff to administer the program and recruit volunteers, who used their own vehicles and were reimbursed 41 cents a kilometre for gas and vehicle wear and tear.

The impact on patients will vary, depending where they live.

The society has been contacting clients and advising them to call the cancer information service at 1-888-939-3333 to learn about transportation programs in their area.

On Vancouver Island, the Freemasons of B.C. and the Yukon will continue to provide a free shuttle service for cancer patients travelling to and from Victoria.

“We’ve actually had a partnership with the Freemasons Cancer Car Program for over 25 years and that will continue on the Island,” Krueckl said.

“It’s not affected by this decision.”

Doug Sowden, who co-ordinates the Freemasons’ program, said the service complemented the Cancer Society’s own program.

The Freemasons have five vans and 200 volunteer drivers to pick up passengers at designated stops up and down the Island, while the Cancer Society’s program helped people get to and from the pick-up and drop-off points in their communities.

“It came as a bit of a surprise to me when I heard that the Cancer Society was closing down its Volunteer Driving Program,” Sowden said. “I guess, the impact for our passengers is that … they will have to get to the pickup points — either get a family member or neighbour or friend or something to take them there.”

Sowden said most passengers who travel to Victoria stay at the Cancer Society’s Vancouver Island Lodge on Richmond Road near Royal Jubilee Hospital. Patients generally arrive on Monday, receive radiation or chemotherapy treatment during the week, and return home Friday.

In a busy month, the service might transport 170 to 180 passengers, he said.

Krueckl stressed that the society is “extremely grateful” for the dedication of volunteers to its drive program.

“We know that volunteering with the program has meant a lot to them and we’ve deeply benefited from their generosity.”

But she said the changing face of volunteerism was another of the factors behind the decision to end the program.

“As our wonderful, dedicated volunteers that have been with us for many years are retiring and moving on from their volunteer roles, we aren’t seeing the same number of volunteers come up behind them.”

lkines@timescolonist.com