Miguel Hernandez, a retired orthopedic surgeon who moved to Cambria two years ago, has a new job: bus driver.
Hernandez, 71, is one of about 30 regular drivers who operate the Cambria Community Bus, a free service for riders who are over 60 or disabled.
It’s a highly personalized service; five days a week, the buses pick up passengers at their homes and take them to doctor’s appointments, the bank, grocery stores, out to lunch, to hair appointments, to the gym — wherever they need to go in Cambria.
Twice a month, a bus takes passengers to San Luis Obispo — Trader Joe’s is a favorite stop there — and once a month it goes to Paso Robles.
Together, the two nine-passenger buses average 9,525 passengers and log 28,000 miles each year.
While there are dial-a-ride services in other communities, those often charge at least a nominal fare. The Cambria service is unique in that it is absolutely free to riders — in large part because the drivers are all volunteers.
Because the buses are small, no special DMV license is required, although drivers do go through a training course.
Hernandez said he was looking for another way to get involved in the community when he noticed the buses — they’re parked near his home when they aren’t in service — and decided to add driving to his roster of volunteer activities. (He also participates in a highway cleanup project, and he organizes a blood drive.)
Because Hernandez is relatively new to the job — he’s been volunteering for three months — he sometimes makes a trial run in his personal car before picking up a passenger in the bus, so he knows exactly where to go.
He was initially nervous about driving a bus — after all, he’d never done it before — “but I tell you, I enjoy it,” Hernandez said.
So does Patty Stephenson, another volunteer driver.
“I love it,” said Stephenson, a travel agent who also works part-time in an art gallery. She’s gotten to know the passengers, and through conversations with them, she’s learned about their families. They’ve gotten to know her family as well. In fact, Stephenson’s son, Gary, is also a Cambria Community Bus driver; he started volunteering first and persuaded his mother to volunteer as well. She’s been at it for three years now.
Joy Gallagher is among her passengers; she’s been riding the Cambria bus for 28 years.
Gallagher, 64, is blind; she depends on the bus to get her to and from the bank, the market, the medical lab. She occasionally takes her two small dogs on the bus for trips to the groomer and the vet.
Gallagher is familiar with all of the drivers, some she’s known for 10 and 15 years.
“I’m good buddies with all of them,” Gallagher said. “I cannot tell you, they are such wonderful, wonderful people.”
The bus service is very much a grassroots community project. Maintenance costs, license fees, fuel and other expenses are covered through donations and a state-funded mileage reimbursement grant.
We have no doubt that without the bus service, the quality of life of many Cambrians would suffer.
As Gallagher points out, “When you can’t drive, you can’t do a whole lot of stuff.”
While many are involved in the project, it’s the corps of volunteer drivers that keeps the Cambria Community Buses on the road, five days a week, rain or shine. The Tribune is proud to honor each and every driver as an unsung hero.
Want to ride the bus?
Call dispatch at 927-4173, at least one day in advance of the day you need a ride. Call between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Monday through Friday to speak directly to the dispatcher. Otherwise, leave a message.
Unsung Hero series
Although The Tribune seeks to celebrate our community's quiet heroes throughout the year, it's especially appropriate during the holidays, when we pause to give thanks, gather with friends and family, and share the warmth and light that brightens our lives.
Unsung heroes are people who practice the Golden Rule and are passionate about their causes but seek no return for their actions other than the satisfaction that comes with helping others.
By highlighting individuals who unselfishly apply their energy and skills to lighten the burden of others, we hope, first, to offer these community heroes the appreciation they deserve; second, to let those who could use the help know of available resources; and, third, to inspire others who are able to help in whatever way they can.