Almost 50 years on, Handi-Wheels still provides rides to elderly, disabled despite COVID-19 challenges
The agency's executive director, Roger Kjos, said Handi-Wheels saw ridership drop by about half because of the pandemic, but he said numbers have recently begun to climb back up, albeit slowly.
FARGO — Handi-Wheels is marking 47 years of providing transportation for individuals with disabilities and the elderly, but it hasn't always been an easy road, particularly the past several years when COVID-19 dealt a severe knock to the agency's ridership.
"The pandemic really devastated us," said Roger Kjos, who works part time as executive director of the nonprofit organization.
Kjos said the agency saw ridership drop by about half over 2020 and 2021, but recently the numbers have started to climb back up, albeit slowly.
In the past fiscal year, the organization gave around 3,100 rides, compared to 5,000 to 6,000 rides per year prior to the start of the pandemic, according to Kjos.
Although the drop in rides caused by the pandemic was precipitous, ride numbers have recently increased by about 6%, Kjos said.
He added that while the turnaround is encouraging, "We still have a long way to go."
Also welcome, he said, were some recent donations, including a $5,000 grant from the FM Area Foundation's Community Response Fund of Cass and Clay Counties, as well as a $10,000 donation from Noridian Healthcare Solutions and a $10,000 grant from the Alex stern Family Foundation in Fargo, the latter two being among the largest gifts Handi-Wheels has ever received.
Kjos said the funds will be used for general operating support to bolster transportation services.
Handi-Wheels began providing nonemergency transportation for people with physical disabilities or anyone with mobility issues in 1975. It currently serves the communities of Fargo and West Fargo with two buses and a minivan.
Citing one example of how valuable Handi-Wheels is to clients, Kjos said one woman who receives rides from the agency uses the service three times a week to get to medical services.
"She has been riding for five years; that's over 800 rides. If she didn't have our services, she would find it difficult to find transportation for a life-sustaining procedure," Kjos said.
He added that anyone interested in setting up a ride may call the agency at 701-232-3231 between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, or send an email from the agency's website at www.handi-wheels.org.
While sending an email is an option, Kjos said the agency likes to have clients reach out with a phone call because it helps them gather necessary information.
Tonna Horsley is a former volunteer at Handi-Wheels who served for a time as the agency's executive director.
She is also a client who uses Handi-Wheels to meet many of her transportation needs.
"For me, Handi-Wheels is independence," said Horsley, adding that she wasn't aware the agency existed until approximately a decade ago when she started using a wheelchair to get around.
Now, she said, Handi-Wheels provides her with transportation to and from things like medical appointments, church services and shopping.
"I just have a greater independence and ability to navigate in the Fargo, West Fargo area to do daily, mundane, usual things," Horsley said.