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In 1971, the White House held its first Conference on Aging in Washington, where inspiration struck volunteers from Boone, Audrain and Callaway counties. The group obtained a $35,000 grant from MU to study the lack of transportation for seniors in rural areas. Instead, the volunteers bought a bus, hired a driver and founded Cooperative Transportation Service, later to become Older Adults Transportation Service, and now known simply as OATS Inc.
By 1973, the company had expanded beyond the original five counties to 87, serving 27,000 riders throughout the state of Missouri annually.
The non-profit provides all Missouri residents something easily taken for granted: their independence in the community.
OATS, with a fleet of 700 vehicles, transports not only senior citizens, but also the general public in rural areas. More than 587,391 trips were made in the last year, transporting people to their jobs free of charge. Specialized trips, made for medical reasons, essential shopping, business, education and recreation, make up another 899,150 one-way trips.
Many riders pay for the services with their time, volunteering however they can. In Boone County, Anne Quade and Betty Smith take phone calls in their homes to schedule OATS rides in their county.
“[Our volunteers] make us very unique. We’re a Missouri institution, and it’s very unique in the country,” executive director Dorothy Yeager says. “Some of the national associations look at us with interest.”
OATS volunteers meet routinely in county committees, and the statewide board of directors comes to the Columbia headquarters monthly. President Nolan McNeill, an employee of the company for three decades, leads the state board.
The Wheel, a quarterly newspaper printed by OATS, is a volunteer project that provides news stories, bus schedules and contact information. It’s also available online for free.
“What’s really funny is that you’ll go back and look at the articles from The Wheel in the 1970s, when the company was founded, and some of them could just reprint today,” says Yeager. “Some of the challenges with funding, the gas prices, are still affecting us. It’s one of those moments when everything’s changed in the world, but nothing’s changed.”
Most OATS drivers are retired, and 20 percent of employees are veterans. Most employees come as a way to give back to their community post-retirement.
“Because we’re a non-profit, our salaries aren’t as high as other places.” Yeager says. “So all we can offer is family-like attitude and a good work environment to make up for the wages. If we can offer some flexibility, that’s a nice trade-off.”
Veteran David Jeffries retired from a print shop in Fulton and has driven for OATS in Columbia since April 2012.
“I’ve never worked with a nicer bunch of people,” Jeffries says. “I love what I do and I think everyone here knows it. It’s not only a job to me, but a blessing. Sometimes I think I’m crazy for saying that. Even in the winter, when it is 11 degrees at four in the morning and I’m all alone preparing for a dialysis run, I know why I love my job.”
The 600 OATS drivers receive training to learn skills like securing wheelchairs and other situations that may arise with elderly passengers or riders with disabilities.
“There’s more responsibility to sitting behind the wheel,” Jeffries says. “Most people we transport are thankful for our services and appreciate the job we do. So many of them, without OATS transportation, probably couldn’t keep medical appointments. I’ve had so many compliments for the job I do, the professionalism I show and the care for who I transport. I take pride in my ride.”
MANY MORE MILES TO COME
While funding from the Federal Transit Administration comes through MoDOT to support OATS, it only accounts for about 30 to 35 percent of the non-profit’s funding.
Partner businesses throughout Missouri make up much of the difference. Agencies on aging, foster grandparents, shelter workshops, hospitals and nursing homes all contract with OATS.
Donations and tax credits are also a major source of income for the organization. Some donations come from Amazon.com through the AmazonSmile program. Boone Electric Community Trust donated $10,000, and the state’s Neighborhood Assistance Program awarded OATS $15,000 in tax credits earlier in 2015. Some donors are more specific, like First Call O’Reilly Auto Parts, which donated flashlights for the buses, and Central Bank of Lebanon, which recently awarded the organization $4,000 toward a new bus.
In September 2016, OATS will celebrate its 45th anniversary at the Holiday Inn Executive Center. More than 800 riders, volunteers and drivers are expected to attend.
“Missouri is still one of the only states with transportation in every single county, regardless of how rural it is.” Yeager says. “It’s something that we as Missourians need to preserve and protect.”