ITHACA, NY -- Thirty-eight years ago, Denise Gelberg was on maternity leave from her teaching job at Northeast Elementary School. She had been hearing engaging ads on the radio recruiting volunteer drivers to transport people who could not reach essential appointments due to disability or plenty of other obstacles. A friend approached her to see if she could commit a few hours every other Monday…
“My eight-month-old loved staying each Monday afternoon with one of her two beloved grandmothers. For four hours a week I could go wherever someone who had contacted Gadabout needed a ride. Founder and director, Judy Willis, had lined up three buses and every Monday, along with Lenny Nissenson, then director of Cornell’s Gannett Clinic, I would drive. On every route I met interesting people,” Denise said. “My oldest rider was 99-and-a-half and my youngest was a college student at Cornell who got around campus in a motorized wheelchair. The other drivers and the office staff were all terrific. I became a Gadabout fan for life. I understood another volunteer driver’s sentiments entirely when he said, ‘This is the lowest paying and most rewarding job I’ve ever had.’”
“Sometimes I would take Ithacare (now Longview) residents out on bus explorations,” Denise said. “I asked Lenny, where should I drive? He advised: ‘Anywhere. The riders enjoy every destination. Best of all, they enjoy when you get lost...And then you can radio in and get help finding your way back.’”
Denise added: “Growing up in NYC, my father only learned to drive when he was in his 40s. Long after I had returned to teaching, my parents moved to Ithaca. When they needed support getting around, they raved about Gadabout. Never a confident driver, my father loved the independence Gadabout provided as my parents aged. When he no longer felt confident about driving, he was still mobile; he had Gadabout…My mother moved to McGraw House and my father eventually moved into Longview assisted living. When he could no longer drive her around, my mother would tell me how the drivers made her feel so cared for. She’d say, ‘They take my arm. They walk slowly. They are wonderful.’”
After Denise had earned her doctorate at Cornell, represented the ICSD teachers’ union as their negotiator and had penned several well-received novels, she encountered John and Alison Maceli.
“John Maceli gave 18 years of service to Gadabout,” Denise said. “When he first started volunteering, he said it was ‘the best four hours of the week.’’
After retiring from IC, John increased his hours driving and joined Gadabout’s board, bowing out only a couple of years ago.
“Other than family matters, I still think the time spent driving for Gadabout was some of the best time I have spent,” John said. “It was a pleasure to be able to help people in their day-to-day travels…Clearly, everyone involved in Gadabout’s operations should be complimented on their dedication to providing such a needed and valued service.”
John, a math professor whose son Denise had taught, encouraged Denise to join him on the Gadabout Board. And so, she did…Besides continuing as a Gadabout Board member, these days Denise tutors a very charming Golden Opportunity (GO) student at her beloved South Hill Elementary School, parking right near the Maceli’s house. Supporting other GO tutors in all the schools in the Ithaca district, Denise has a full life as a writer, mother, grandmother, wife. But her connection to, and support of, Gadabout remains strong.
Once a month for the past eight years Denise has participated in the Gadabout Board meetings.
“It’s a wonderful organization,” Denis said. “Judy Willis’ inspiration has prospered and grown. Her dream that Gadabout buses would enhance people’s independence, with door-to-door service has come to fruition. So many travelers regale with stories how they could not have gotten to the doctor, to visit someone in the jail, among other destinations. The board has terrific members who bring their experiences at [Cayuga Medical Center], at [Finger Lakes Independence Center], or their skills at marketing or accounting…With a marvelous second director, Kristen Wells, and supportive staff and board, this spring Gadabout will share its new initiative. So, stay tuned for the upcoming interview with Kristen Wells. No one will be left behind.”
For more information about driving for or contributing to Gadabout, contact Kristen Wells at (607) 273-1878, 737 Willow Avenue, Ithaca, NY 14850. Every dollar contributed helps neighbors get where they need to go.