By PHYLLIS HODGES
South Shore veterans now have an additional option for rides to VA treatment facilities. Mitra Gobin, who heads the VA Center for Development and Civic Engagement, said that free rides to the South Hillsborough Outpatient Clinic are now available through the efforts of the Valencia Lakes (VL) Military Veterans Club.
When the clinic in Riverview opened in 2019, the VL club quickly recognized a “need to be filled.” A 2020 Chevrolet van was purchased with a bequest from the estate of Valencia Lakes resident John A. Gasell, who had stipulated the funds would be used for transporting veterans. The van was then merged into the VA Volunteer Transportation Network (VTN). Then came COVID restrictions, which delayed starting full service until now.
The VTN rides are free to veterans with appointments between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Rides can be scheduled by calling the reservation line (813-522-1018) at least seven days in advance if possible. Currently, there are pick-up points in Sun City Center and Wimauma. Gobin said that the dispatcher will work with callers to determine a pick-up point most accessible to the veteran. Number of trips per day, as well as any future expansion of the serviced area, will be determined by demand.
Spouses or caretakers may accompany the veteran, who must be ambulatory, as drivers are not permitted to assist with mobility needs. Walkers and portable oxygen tanks are allowed, but the van is not equipped to accommodate wheelchairs, The rider must present VA identification or other proof of military service.
This new free-ride service is a valuable addition to other ride opportunities in the South Shore area. The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Chapter 110 has been sponsoring a transport program for well over a decade. Its van (also part of the VA’s VTN) transports veterans to appointments at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital and its satellite clinics in Tampa (not Riverview). The reservation number is 813-642-0302 for the DAV van, which services most of Sun City Center, Ruskin and Gibsonton.
Samaritan Services in Sun City Center (813-634-9283) is also an option for rides to Tampa and Riverview for residents in its served area of SCC and Kings Point. Also, the SCC Emergency Squad (813-633-1411) has just announced a new service for wheelchair-bound riders to medical appointments within 25 miles. For residents of larger assisted and independent living facilities, rides to Tampa and/or Riverview are often available. For example, Aston Gardens in SCC will take veterans to Riverview; Freedom Plaza in Ruskin and Sun Towers in Sun City Center provide rides to both Tampa and Riverview.
Commenting on the Volunteer Transportation Network, Gobin said it originated in 1987 through a partnership with the Disabled American Veterans. The objective was to create a volunteer-based nationwide network to provide veterans with transportation to the VA hospitals and clinics. Originally, the vans all came from DAV donations, but now they are funded with grants and donations from other sources. In addition to Hillsborough County, there are VTN services in Polk, Pasco, Citrus and Hernando, which all depend on volunteer coordinators, dispatchers and drivers to sustain the service.
“Drivers are critically needed at all locations,” Gobin said. “Prospective volunteers can call 813-972-7533 or email VHATAMCDCE@va.gov to get information. They will be directed to the VA location closest to where they live.”