Last year Wallowa County veterans made more than 500 trips for medical care. Given the remoteness of the county and the vast distances they must travel, receiving assistance to afford those trips is essential.
Thanks to the Highly Rural Transportation Grant provided by the federal government, veterans in Wallowa County and nine other rural Oregon counties have received assistance that includes door-to-door pick-up and drop-off in ADA-compliant vehicles, along with assistance in loading or unloading at no cost to the veteran.
That grant provision, which has been renewed three years in the past, will continue, according to the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
The federal grant provides half a million dollars toward the transportation needs of veterans in rural Oregon. Oregon has 10 counties that are considered “highly rural”: Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Lake, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Wallowa and Wheeler. Each county receives $50,000, which the state VA, in partnership with each county or transportation district, leverages with existing programs in order to get the maximum value from each grant.
“The success of this program really boils down to the creativity of these counties and transportation districts,” said Mitch Sparks, director of statewide veterans’ services for ODVA. “We didn’t dictate to them how the money should be spent. That allowed them to be very innovative in using these grants however they worked best within their individual transportation systems.”
Last year, veterans in the 10 participating counties made 5,453 trips spanning more than 274,600 miles as part of this program. Wallowa County veterans accounted for slightly less than 10 percent of those trips.
Jim Hicks of Joseph, current post commander for VFW Post 4307 in Enterprise, praised the veteran’s transport program offered in Wallowa County through Community Connection.
“The program has been very good and we’ve had no problems with it,” he said. “They’ve been there to take care of everyone who needed the program. I made one trip to American Lakes in Tacoma, a seven-and-a-half-hour drive one way. They picked me up, got me up there and picked me up at the hotel and got me to the doctor’s appointment and stayed and waited until I was ready to go and picked me up and took me home. There are so many veterans that can’t afford such a trip — it saves them a lot of money.”
“Our need is actually higher than can be covered by the $50,000 grant,” said Connie Guentert, manager of Community Connection. “There were a couple of months last year we couldn’t provide trips through this program because of the limit of the grant. We gave veterans a ride under a different program.”
Oregon vets in rural areas account for nearly half of the total trips provided nationally under the program, according to ODVA, because not all Veteran’s Affairs offices in other states have taken advantage of the program. Only 25 states have any counties that qualify as “highly rural” and only 11 have applied for the program.
As a result, Oregon counties may be leading the way in demonstrating how best to use the grant.
“Representatives of the 10 Oregon counties meet twice a year to discuss what has worked and what veterans need,” said Guentert. “We’re creating a good path for other states to use and be successful with.”
Mitch Sparks, director of statewide veterans services for ODVA, has high praise for the Wallowa County partnership.
“Community Connection in Wallowa County is very active and very creative in the ways they work to help veterans,” Sparks said. “I am very impressed. We got them another $10,000 through another program to help them with those extra trips not covered in the Highly Rural Transportation program last year. We’re really proud to have Community Connection as a partner.”
If you are a veteran and would like more information about the Highly Rural Transportation program, please contact Danielle Salmon at Community Connection at 541-426-3840.