PORT TOWNSEND — The Ecumenical Christian Helping Hands Organization, or ECHHO, is filling a need for East Jefferson County’s aging population by providing transportation and medical supplies.
“People are always surprised that everything we do is free,” said Sarah McMahan, ECHHO executive director. “We’re a primarily donation-driven organization.”
One of the most popular services provided by the nonprofit group is the transportation service.
“We work with Jefferson Transit and basically fill the gaps that the Transit can’t fill,” McMahan said.
According to McMahan, those gaps are primarily getting people to doctor appointments that are out of town. While chemotherapy is now available at Jefferson Healthcare hospital in Port Townsend, patients must travel to Sequim or Silverdale for radiation therapy.
“We have volunteers who drive patients multiple days in a row so they can get their full treatment,” McMahan said.
One of those volunteers is Chester Prudhomme, 73. Prudhomme is also one of the few volunteers willing to make the drive to Seattle for people with more specialized needs.
“I like driving in Seattle so I don’t mind it,” Prudhomme said.
Prudhomme was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service Award in 2015 and was given the ECHHO Bruce and Jeanette Travis Award for 2014 for his volunteer service.
He holds the record for the most miles driven by an ECHHO volunteer at 44,088 miles. He has bested that record at this point, he said, having driven more than 50,000.
Prudhomme has been driving for ECHHO for 12 years. He began volunteering after a friend of his used ECHHO’s free medical equipment loan program.
“I’m a child of the ’60s so I was raised to know that helping people is the highest form of human activity,” Prudhomme said.
Prudhomme recruited his friend, 74-year-old Jim Birdsall, to volunteer as a driver as well. Birdsall, a retired math professor, has been driving for about seven years and said he enjoys talking to people he never would have met otherwise.
“It’s just a great experience,” Birdsall said.
Aside from medical driving services, ECHHO volunteers also help residents of East Jefferson County with chores around the house, yard work, running errands around town and helping to transport medical equipment such as hospital beds and wheelchairs — all for free.
ECHHO was founded in 1997 when Janette and Bruce Travis saw that there was a significant need within Port Townsend’s aging population, according to McMahan.
“We’re the second oldest county in the state and 10th in the nation,” McMahan said. “Forty-two percent of households have someone 65 or over.”
While the bulk of ECHHO’s participants are elderly, McMahan said the goal is to help those who need help to live independently, regardless of age.
“We help people 1 through, the new record is 106,” said operations manager Rich Heitmann.
ECHHO is funded primarily — 70 percent according to Heitmann — by individual donors. It also relies on partnerships with Jefferson Healthcare and local churches to continue providing services for free.
“We’re always looking for more volunteers as well,” said volunteer coordinator Cassie Reeves.
According to McMahan, many of their volunteers end up using their services as they age.
“We’re growing exponentially since retirees are moving out here in droves,” McMahan said. “So we always need more help.”
ECHHO volunteers set their own schedule and choose what they want to do. Birdsall and Prudhomme said they both work three to four days per week. Prudhomme loves to take longer drives while Birdsall said he prefers to stay close to Port Townsend.
Interested volunteers can contact ECHHO on its website, www.echhojc.org.
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Cydney McFarland can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 55052, or at email@example.com.