One Armagh charity has been tackling rural isolation one journey at a time for the last 20 years.
Armagh Rural Transport (ART) was set up at the turn of the century and will celebrate its 20th anniversary in January.
ART has aspired to help members of the community who have difficulty accessing services due to lack of transport, or other mobility issues – an issue affecting many locally in Armagh.
Project manager, Diane Irwin, speaking to Armagh I, says many people are unaware of their services until they, or someone they know, needs it.
Ms Irwin, said the service is available to all “young and old”.
“We set up in 2000 so coming January we are celebrating our 20th anniversary,” she explained. “Throughout that time we have been funded by the Department for Infrastructure.
“Initially when it was set up it was more centred on community groups but then the department focus changed and they stopped funding group work; now they only fund the individual end of it.”
Diane says the service is for anyone in the rural areas of Armagh, that meets their criteria of not having access to a car or public transport.
“You could be a married couple and your husband uses the car to go to work, or you could be a young mother without transport,” explained Diane.
“The majority of people that do use us would be elderly and disabled but that’s not the criteria, anyone that is isolated in a rural community can access our services.”
There is also a scheme currently in place offering half – or even free fares – for holders of a Translink Smartpass.
To avail of the service you are required to pay a membership fee of £20 for Smartpass holders, or £10 for those who do not hold one.
Diane said: “£20 is nothing if you consider if you are a senior that you can then travel for free”.
However, there are limitations, as Diane explained: “Our service is restricted, we can only provide transport three days a week purely because of reduction of funding; we cannot sustain the demand under these tough cuts.”
ART use a range of paid and volunteer staff, with paid drivers employed to use accessible vehicles whilst volunteer car drivers use their own vehicles.
Diane said: “The volunteers drive their own cars, they would do a lot of the individual work if someone had a hospital appointment; we are always looking for more.
“I love the ethos of the company, the fact it has a heart for the community and it is here solely to help the community when they can’t get out, many of them would say to me ‘this is a lifeline for us'”.
Diane was keen to stress that it’s not like service users don’t have family; it’s simply more a case of these busy families having the time to make these runs.
“There are only so many times someone who is working full time can ask for time off; ours is a local service so we can’t take them to Craigavon or Daisy Hill but what I would always tell people is use our service for the local work and then call on your family when we can’t do it.
“It’s not like in my granny’s time when people visited each other, life has got so busy that when people get home from work they shut the door.
“It’s not that they don’t care for their elderly neighbours, it is just that they assume that someone else is looking out for them.”
ART complete a staggering 800 to 900 trips a month – more than they are funded for.
Bestowing the benefits of the scheme, Diane says it gives people “a chance to get out and interacting with others”.
“Many are taken to the swimming pool, this is part of social prescribing,” Diane continued. “It is a new method adopted by doctors to help people with their mental health and anxiety.
“Many people do not know that our services exist until they, or someone they know, needs it but our service is available to all young and old.
“For many, it is only by word of mouth they will hear about this, I encourage everyone to think even if they don’t need it there maybe someone they know that does”.
For more information call them on 028 3751 8151 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.