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Like corporate America, Anoka County's Medlink is seeking more help.

The popular program relies on volunteers to take seniors and veterans to medical, dental and social services appointments, but is facing a driver shortage at a time when demand is rising.

"We are bouncing up against the number of passengers we can give rides to," said Medlink coordinator Mark Schermerhorn. "Volunteers make this happen. They are the backbone of the program."

At its peak, Medlink had nearly 50 drivers, many who were seniors and veterans themselves. Some have passed away. Other have moved out of the county. Some didn't come back when the program resumed after pausing due to the pandemic, Schermerhorn said.

From September 2021 through August 2022, Medlink provided nearly 4,800 trips to destinations such as VA medical facilities in St. Cloud and Minneapolis, clinics, hospitals and the Anoka County Government Center, according to a county spokesman.

During that 12-month period, Medlink passengers were allowed to book two round trip rides per week. With fewer drivers, the rules changed in the fall: Passengers are now limited to one trip.

Anoka resident Lois Schlenker, 76, and her husband, Arthur, 82, no longer drive and depend on Medlink to get to the doctor. It's easy to use, Lois Schlenker said — she simply calls or goes online to set up a ride and is matched with a driver who comes to her door, takes her to her appointment, waits and then brings her home.

"It's been a lifeline for us," Schlenker said. Without Medlink, "I don't know how we would get to our appointments."

Schlenker has not had to miss any appointments, but said it's been tougher to get her favorite drivers.

"They've said they already have a ride that day," Schlenker said. "They have commented on being extra busy."

Bill Merry, a Medlink driver for seven years, has been noticeably busier. Last year, the retired typesetter made 385 trips, which added up to 7,916 miles and 520 hours.

"It's fulfilling," Merry said. "I'm providing a service they can't do for themselves."

To recruit drivers, Schermerhorn has put notices in community newspapers and city newsletters. He's posted flyers on kiosks in libraries, the government center, American Legion clubs and even in church bulletins.

Volunteers providing their own vehicle can be of any age. They must have insurance and pass a background check. Drivers are reimbursed for mileage and can work as much or as little as they choose, Schermerhorn said.

"I would tell them it is a rewarding service, that they could help somebody who really needs a medical ride," Schlenker said. To those who do, "God bless them."

Parade road closures

Drivers in downtown St. Paul may have to alter their routes Saturday due to the St. Paul Winter Carnival's Vulcan Victory Torchlight Parade. The parade steps off at 5 p.m. and will travel along W. 7th Street from Smith Street to 5th Street, then to Washington and 4th streets.