For Good: Road to Recovery volunteers drive cancer patients to lifesaving treatment

By any measure, Ken Boyles had the perfect retirement lifestyle. Both in good health, he and his wife of nearly 50 years live in a Florida golf community with all their children and grandchildren close by. Their lives were filled with family, friends and plenty of golf. 

But the former IT executive sensed something was missing. He felt a need to help others who may not be so lucky, but wasn’t sure about what type of volunteer work would be right for him. 

“I felt kind of guilty because I felt like I should be doing something to help other people,” says Boyles, 70, who moved to Hunters Green from Connecticut several years ago.  

Then a younger neighbor was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer and needed someone to drive him to Moffitt for his treatments. 

“Most of the people in our neighborhood work, so my neighbor asked me if I could drive him,” says Boyles, who was stunned by how his neighbor, a non-smoker in apparent good health, could end up with lung cancer. “I drove him through the entire process, and ended up feeling like it was the best thing I’d done in a while.”

Soon after his neighbor’s treatment was over, Boyles saw a local news segment about the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program and the need for volunteers to drive cancer patients to and from treatment. He contacted the organization immediately and has been driving patients for nearly a year.

“I’m the kind of person who likes to be moving all the time. I didn’t want to just go sit somewhere, like in a hospital. I wanted to know I would be doing something useful the entire time,” says Boyles. “It makes me feel good to be able to help people and realize it makes a real difference in their life.” 

Removing a cancer patient’s biggest roadblock to treatment 

Because lack of transportation is one of the biggest barriers to cancer care, Road to Recovery volunteers provide rides that help save lives, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). While family and friends often help, they may not always have the time or financial means to provide every ride needed for cancer treatment, which can require daily appointments and extend over many months, explains Jennifer Howe, communications manager for the ACS Florida division.

There’s an ongoing need in the Tampa Bay area for volunteer drivers willing to donate their time, use of their own vehicle and gas to drive cancer patients, says Howe. In the past year, less than 220 drivers provided about 8,200 rides to about 700 patients in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Sarasota, Manatee, Pasco and Hernando counties. Since many of the volunteers are seasonal retirees, she said the ranks of available drivers can drop in half during the summer and fall months, creating an even greater need.

“These volunteers are saints because they’re so dedicated to helping patients,” says Howe. “It really does make the difference in whether the patient gets the lifesaving treatment they need or not.”

Easy path to volunteering

To ensure safety, the ACS screens every volunteer. Requirements include a good driving record, valid driver’s license, access to a safe and reliable vehicle, proof of adequate automobile insurance, training completion, and some available time from Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The training, about one hour, can be conducted online, by phone or in person.
Drivers have total control over the hours they provide, with the option to drive just one-way or round-trip. After a volunteer is accepted into the program, they receive regular emails listing the rides needed by geographic area. The email includes the origination and destination locations, appointment time and estimated duration. Drivers reply by email to volunteer for specific rides and then the Road to Recovery scheduling staff confirm with the driver and patient. 

“Our system is very flexible. The drivers can say they only have one hour a week and we can work with that,” says Howe. “It’s not unusual to have one driver take a patient and another driver pick them up and take them home. The patient also has a lot to say. If they work with a driver and they click, they can request that driver. It’s really neat to see the bond develop.”

For example, Boyles has developed a special bond with Marilyn Barnes, a 70-year-old patient he started driving to treatment in the spring. 

“Ken has been taking me on a regular basis to my doctor’s appointments. He’s been wonderful,” says Barnes, whose daughter lives in Alabama. “You build a whole rapport, I really like it.”

Doing so much better

Boyles says he has especially enjoyed watching Barnes’ health improve since he started driving her. “When I first took her, she wasn’t doing very well at all, and I needed to help her to and from the car.” he says. “We really hit it off, so she requested me. Now it feels really good to see her doing so much better.”

He has simple advice for others interested in volunteering to drive for the Road to Recovery program.

“If you have the time and you want to help people, I think it’s an excellent way of spending your time,” Boyles says. “You’re helping them get through a very difficult time in their life.”

To take the first step to volunteer, call the American Cancer Society at 800-227-2345 and select the option for volunteers. A member of the Volunteer Care Team will take your information to begin the registration process.

Read more articles by Elizabeth Taylor.

Elizabeth Taylor is a freelance business writer who lives on the Hillsborough River in Seminole Heights, Tampa’s friendly and funky neighborhood. She grew up in Madeira Beach and earned her BA in English from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. With over a decade specializing in writing about sustainability, Liz enjoys telling stories about Tampa Bay businesses and people who are creating positive change.
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