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Johnson County drivers offer support to riders with disabilities and behavioral health challenges

Chris Mays has been a program driver for about six years, using his own experience with mental health issues to offer one-on-one support. Last year, he provided over 2,000 rides.
Johnson County Mental Health Center
Johnson County Mental Health Center
Chris Mays has been a Corey M. Stoltz Transportation Program driver for about six years, using his own experience with mental health issues to offer one-on-one support. Last year, he provided more than 2,000 rides.

The Johnson County Mental Health Center provided more than 35,000 rides last year for people with mental health and intellectual disabilities. The program helps clients get around Kansas City plus offers peer-to-peer support.

For people in Kansas City with intellectual disabilities or behavioral health diagnoses, getting to and from work, school and other critical services can be littered with obstacles.

Many individuals do not have driver’s licenses and public transportation isn’t always a viable option, especially if work falls outside traditional hours or is far away. In some cases, COVID-19 made these barriers worse, changing living arrangements or job requirements.

That’s something Chris Mays noticed in his own struggles with mental health. After a period of recovery, Mays hit a wall and ended up in the hospital. Through a Johnson County Mental Health Center program that trains people to serve as drivers and one-on-one peer support for center clients, Mays said he found stable ground.

Now he’s sharing his lived experiences to help others with behavioral health diagnoses or intellectual disabilities.

“This isn’t just a taxi service, this is rehabilitation for people,” Mays, who has been a program driver for about six years, said. “It’s getting them started. It’s getting another foot in the door, gradually. It sets people up for success, it really does.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, the Corey M. Stoltz Transportation Program offered a way to get clients of Johnson County Mental Health Center where they needed to go. The program also provides rides to UnitedHealthcare Medicaid participants.

With more than 60 peers trained to serve as drivers and one-on-one peer support, the program completed 35,069 rides in 2023, well exceeding a goal of 23,500. The fleet of drivers recorded a 95% on-time percentage, which is more consistent than the RideKC bus system, for example.

On average, there were about 145 ride requests per day, seven days per week. Mays said he usually completes about 10 to 12 rides every day. He was one of three drivers to complete more than 2,000 rides last year.

During rides, Mays said, he is able to go where case workers often might not be able to by sharing his own story.

“Most drivers keep it pretty casual, and if they open up, that's where we can really make a change in their life,” he said. “I’ll help them with ideas on self-care or where to get treatment.”

Helping individuals overcome the transportation barriers present so they can get to work, school and other appointments helps create great self-sufficiency. The process is even therapeutic for Mays, who said he finishes every day feeling better than he started.

In addition, the program provides employment opportunities to those who become peer specialists. Drivers can only work 20 hours a week at the beginning but, like Mays, who began as a part-time driver, can eventually become full-time employees.

Mackenzie Robinson, case manager and assistant supervisor for the program, said the opportunity to provide employment to the drivers and watch their own journeys is a huge bonus of the service.

“We have the best drivers in the world. They aren’t here for a job, they are here to help people. Their heart is in the right place and that plays an important role in the services they provide. They’re able to do so much more than your average Uber.”

In 2024, the transportation team hopes to continue to grow, with a stated goal of 40,500 ride requests accepted — a 20% increase over 2023 — all while maintaining a 95% on-time percentage. To accomplish this goal, Johnson County is looking to add 10 more drivers and seven more cars.

In addition, program leaders are launching the Working Hard to Ensure Long-Term Solutions (WHEELS) committee, a group of three peer drivers and a dispatcher who will gather regularly to solicit feedback on what is working well or could use improvement and consider other ways beyond their current goals to expand the program.

You can make a ride request by contacting Transportation Services at 913-826-4078.

As KCUR's health reporter, I cover the Kansas City metro in a way that reflects our expanding understanding of what health means and the ways it touches different communities and different areas in distinct ways. I will provide a platform to amplify ideas and issues often underrepresented in the media and marginalized people and communities in an authentic and honest way that goes beyond the surface of the issues. I will endeavor to find and include in my work local experts and organizations that have their ears to the ground and a beat on the health needs of the community. Reach me at noahtaborda@kcur.org.
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