July 1, 2020 — “I know it has been a hardship for many people in Florence and surrounding areas who are dealing with cancer to have to find their own way to the valley for their radiation sessions,” said Tom Grove, board chairman of the Friends of Florence. “Now we believe that we have come up with a plan that will keep everyone safe and allow us to continue our mission.”
Friends of Florence, a nonprofit transportation service founded in 1985, has embraced changes necessary under the novel coronavirus COVID-19 to help friends and neighbors treat cancer, recover fully and live.
Committed Friends of Florence volunteers have been transporting cancer patients to health facilities in Eugene and Portland for treatments unavailable in the region for more than three decades. The group was formed for the sole purpose of helping area residents during what is often the most difficult challenge they will face in their lives, fighting cancer.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the relatively simple act of driving a small group to medical appointments has required alteration. Service was ultimately halted early this spring while board members determined the safest way to reintroduce the service, if that was even possible, once the guidelines and protocols for transportation of ill individuals had been codified and released to the public by the Oregon Health Authority.
“Because of the virus, we had to cease operations both for the safety of the passengers and our volunteer drivers,” Grove said.
Friends of Florence transports, free of charge, cancer patients who may have weakened immune systems or other medical issues that compromise their ability to fight off infections and disease. These underlying conditions make restarting service in the medical support area more critical than opening other businesses that have been shut down, such as restaurants and motels.
The nonprofit will resume service on Monday, July 6, with several necessary changes in practice.
Under the plan, devised by Friends of Florence Operations Chief Bart Mealer, the five-day-a-week bus trips will differ markedly from those in the past.
The changes include limiting the number of riders to four per trip to allow for physical dis-tancing, the taking of temperatures of all riders and prohibiting eating or drinking while in the vehicle.
Friends of Florence will provide hand sanitizer and disposable face masks for all riders, as well as clean and sanitize the bus at the end of every trip.
However, the transportation is also limiting its trips. Instead of taking patients for radiation treatment to both the Willamette Valley Cancer Institute in Eugene and the Oregon Urology Institute in Springfield, the bus will go only to the Cancer Institute in Eugene, which will coordi-nate with the Friends of Florence to schedule the riders.
According to Grove, donations to support the Friends of Florence have dwindled during the pandemic.
“Right now, what we are really needing is to increase the donations coming in from the community. Since we stopped operating, donations have tapered off, which is very understand-able given the current circumstances,” he said. “The Florence community has been very sup-portive over the years and we are sure that once we start running again, they will step up to help us, as they have for 35 years.”
More than 30,000 area residents have been the recipients of the generosity and dedication of those that have accepted the responsibility of driving, as trips are made five days a week and average 160 miles per day.
The drivers have totaled more than 1.4 million miles transporting others to much needed medical treatments and examinations.
Grove is hoping that as the pandemic wanes in Oregon, and the restrictions regarding phys-ical distancing continue to relax, Friends of Florence will be able to increase the number of in-dividuals it can assist.
“One of the things we really want to do is increase our passenger load. We are starting to get more requests than we have seats for, so as soon as we can, we want to help more people get to their appointments,” Grove said.
For more information about riding the bus, volunteering to drive or making donations, con-tact Grove at 541-997-8629 or Mealer at 541-997-8663, or go to friendsofflorence.net.