The Gift of a Lift

The drivers of the IRC Volunteer Ambulance Squad quietly perform an invaluable service to the community

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Volunteer driver Kendall Zarrella is ready and waiting when Lois Miles is finished with her medical appointment
Volunteer driver Kendall Zarrella is ready and waiting when Lois Miles is finished with her medical appointment.

Amidst the traffic on the roads of Indian River County rolls a small fleet of vehicles with a very big mission. The Indian River County Volunteer Ambulance Squad transports local residents to and from medical appointments at no cost; all they have to do is ask.

In a typical year, the squad makes some 13,000 trips covering more than 140,000 miles. It is a staggering undertaking, considering that the entire operation consists of seven compact cars, four vans, 30 to 50 volunteers (depending on the time of year), and a single paid employee operating out of a small headquarters at the northeast foot of the Barber Bridge—all funded completely by donations.

Every Friday, six-year volunteer Kendall Zarrella, a retired citrus company administrator, puts in a seven-hour day picking up and dropping off people who have no other way to get to their medical appointments. “A lot of people we pick up have no family here,” she explains.

One may imagine that transporting clients who are far away from loved ones and perhaps burdened with medical concerns may occasionally be a less-than-pleasant experience. On the contrary, Zarrella says, “I haven’t encountered but one person who was a little grumpy.”

Her first pickup on a particular Friday provides a perfect example: Due to a rare mistake, Zarrella’s directions contain an incorrect building number in Vista Gardens, resulting in a later-than-expected pickup. But Lois Miles emerges from her condo all smiles, greeting her driver with gratitude. “They’re always very good,” says the 90-year-old, who uses the service when her children are not available. During the drive to the doctor’s office, she and Zarrella, both Massachusetts natives, share amiable banter about a variety of topics, including places they’re both familiar with.

Volunteer Adrian Dery helps Anne Sikes into the wheelchair van after her medical appointment
Volunteer Adrian Dery helps Anne Sikes into the wheelchair van after her medical appointment.

“I think I’m amazed at people’s backgrounds,” Zarrella responds when asked about her favorite aspect of the job. Most of the squad’s clients are elderly and, even though their lives may have slowed down, “they’ve done a lot of really interesting things. I like to hear that.”

Adrian Dery is a Wednesday stalwart in one of the wheelchair vans. “This is my thirteenth year,” he says. “A friend of mine asked me to ride along with him for half a day, and I’m still here.” He didn’t even expect to like it, but hearing people say, “I couldn’t get to my medical appointments without you” hooked him. He also enjoys the mental challenge of constantly thinking of the infinite variety of routes throughout the county.

Not that drivers are left to their own devices. They are in constant radio contact with April Hargett, the squad’s sole paid employee, who deftly coordinates all pickups and drop-offs from her desk at “base.” 

On a Friday in June, Dery is on a special assignment: to transport his 98-year-old mother-in-law, Anne Sikes, from her home at Indian River Estates to the Cleveland Clinic complex and back in the squad’s newest, state-of-the-art wheelchair van. Wheelchair pickups are usually two-man operations, but on this day Dery manages quite well on his own. As with some other clients, a caregiver is coming along—in this case, Dery’s wife, Ginya, who accompanies Sikes into the medical facility.

Several volunteers take two shifts per week, and another crew spends Saturdays cleaning and maintaining the vehicles. They love their work and it shows—it’s the gift of
a lift.

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