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GM Community Wheels, Wheels for the Community

June 25th, 2007


This day will be different. For starters I’ll be occupying the passengers seat rather than my usual location strapped in behind the wheel of a motor vehicle.

My driver, retired foot care nurse Diane Das, pleasantly welcomes me to her world as a volunteer driver of one of Halifax’s Community Wheels vans. With six of them on the go, I’m sure most Halifax residents have seen one of the General Motors’-sponsored vehicles moving about the city streets.

Diane fills me in on the morning’s agenda. We’ll be picking up a number of senior citizens at their homes and driving them to Spencer House, a senior centre in downtown Halifax that has provided activities, lunch and an opportunity for seniors to mingle and hang out for the past couple of decades.

Our first stop is in Fairview where spunky 84-year-old Rita Richard lives alone in her apartment. Rita has made Spencer House the focal point of her social scene almost every day since the centre opened on June 23rd, 1983.

“How do you like the services of this Community Wheels van?” I ask.

“Oh I couldn’t come on my own. That would have dire consequences for me. I used to take the bus but now my legs are too sore.” Rita’s smile is infectious. “It’s not your age you know, it’s your health.”

I ponder that as Rita charms Diane Das en route another stop where we pick up Pat Almolky. I eavesdrop on the chatter in the back seat.

“Sometimes I think I should get rid of all my dishes. Just keep the ones I use”. Then, “As long as I can knit, everything will be fine.”

We head for Spencer House while Diane Das jokes with our passengers. I reflect on a conversation I had with another Diane earlier in the week.

Diane Lehman, in GM’s communications staff at the General’s Canadian headquarters in Oshawa, Ontario passionately administers this national program. She told me the idea for GM’s Community Wheels was piloted in 2003 in Edmonton and has since been launched in Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax.

GM Canada through a partnership with the United Way in each of these cities has brought mobility to United Way supported agencies with significant transportation requirements. Each city receives six new vans (Chevrolet Uplanders, Pontiac Montana SV6s and Saturn Relays) every January. The insurance, fuel and maintenance are covered by GM so agencies can take full advantage of the vehicle without worrying about restrictive operating expenses.

Through the use of GM’s Community Wheels, patrons have access to social programs including mental health assistance, drug and alcohol treatment, counseling and inner city youth programs.

At seniors centres like Halifax’s Spencer House, the vans provides citizens with safe, dependable rides to social and recreational programs. This interaction with their friends, volunteers and the community helps them stay connected, healthy and relevant.

We drop Pat and Rita at Spencer House and Diane Das checks with reception for our next pick-up. It’s Margaret Osmond, a 94-year-old long-time member of Spencer House.

As we pull up in front of her apartment building, Diane tells me I’ll have to sit in the back. Shortly, Margaret takes the front perch then tells me she worked at the Hotel Nova Scotian, now the Westin, for 25 years. She began as a waitress in 1946 and worked her way up to head cashier. I imagine the scene at the hotel back then; swing bands reverberating in the ballroom, patrons dripping with optimism of post-war’s boom times.

We drop Margaret at Spencer House then leave to pick up another crew. Diane Das greets them like visiting cousins and I’m relegated to the back seat again.

Cecil Oakley takes centre stage. He’ll be 90 in July and there is a big party planned at Spencer House where he calls the weekly bingo games and organizes tours and events. He tells me he used to work with Margaret at the Hotel Nova Scotian back in those glory years. As I listen to his stories, I relish in a time when air travel was more a novelty and huffing steam locomotives were the transportation workhorses of the nation.

I’m alone in the third row seat wondering what these folks would do without the Community Wheels vans. There are plenty of ways car companies can help out with the loan or donation of a vehicle. But the Community Wheels program is about the most useful I have ever heard of.

I consider conversations I’ve heard in the past few hours. Beyond answering my questions about the past, most of it is has been about the future, about what’s next. And much of this future relies on ‘the van’, the tool that spins a plan to fruition. A road trip to Prince Edward Island and Sherbrooke Village is in the works, another to Peggy’s Cove.

“Andy was the driver yesterday,” Cecil tells everyone. “He pushed that OnStar button by mistake and got General Motors on the line. They wanted to know what was going on.”

Lots of laughs. Cecil Oakley is a ringleader all right.

Back at Spencer House, I settle into good company and a lovely home-cooked lunch. Preparing to leave, I consider the scene. Someone had just delivered a rendition of an Elvis song. Rita Richard is knitting. Newspapers are being read and plans being made for summer outings.

In the GM Community Wheels van of course

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