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Transportation with a Heart - Moments of Connection in a Rural County

Madison County lies on the western edge of North Carolina, where the Appalachian Trail meanders north and east from Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Generations of farmers once grew tobacco here on the sides of mountains and still raise cattle to make ends meet. “When you go back into some of the mountains and hollers, you can almost touch what once was,” says Dee Heinmuller, Director of Madison County Community Services.

On a shoestring budget typical of most rural communities, Madison County is transforming many of its senior citizens’ daily lives through affordable, reliable transportation. “We provide transportation with a heart,” says Tamara Huffman, Administrative Assistant for the county’s transportation authority and self-described “mother hen.” As the van dispatcher, she knows every one of her passengers, “and they know me, or my husband’s family,” she says. “We all look out for each other, so when I don’t hear from one of my regulars after a few days, I call and check up on them.” Her team is proud of their curb-to-curb service. “Our drivers supply a personal touch when it’s needed,” Tamara explains, “whether it’s filling up a birdfeeder, walking a dog or carrying six ladies’ purses into an Active Living Senior center.”

Without question, the drivers are instrumental in reducing social isolation in the county. As they pick up, transport, and deliver people, they provide many moments of connection, especially for seniors, who comprise 90% of their passengers. During trips, the drivers often mention events and programs at the county’s eight Active Living Centers, formerly called “meal sites.” Angie Allison, Madison County Active Living Center Coordinator, explains how critical this is: “Our participants are proud of their self-sufficiency; they believe handouts are for someone else. When our centers were called ‘meal sites,’ too many people stayed away. Now, when a driver describes the fun events at our Active Living Centers—not to mention all the good food—folks are much more willing to give them a try.” Active Living Centers are more than lunch and puzzles these days, contributing to Madison County’s growing reputation as an age-friendly place to live.

Heinmuller says a lot of her job is “cross-pollination”--strengthening the interconnectedness that already exists in her large, rural county. “Many of our seniors live alone in an older home—maybe a farmhouse--that might date back generations. There’s a powerful energy there, and great practical knowledge, that should be nurtured and passed along.”

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