One cold, blustery, winter morning two years ago, a Loudoun County Red Cross station wagon driver spotted a bundle-up, elderly lady plodding along on Route 287, headed toward Purcellville.
"Anyone knows the lady?" the driver asked the senior citizen passengers.
One woman, who knew the walker, said that he was 73 years old and lived alone in a log abin a few miles off the paved highway. Twice week, the elderly woman walked eight miles, ound trip, to do her shopping.
The driver stopped, gave the woman a lift, and later picked her up for a return trip to her out-of-the-way cabin.
Today, the proud and independent woman, now 74, is a regular Wednesday rider in the Red Cross's station wagon, a free transportation service for senior citizens that operates five days a week in as many different locations in Loudoun County.
Parts of Loudoun County "seem like an entirely different world," said Barbara Dutton, Red Cross transportation coordinator. The county has miles of hills, valleys, rocky roads and out-of-the-way homes.
Many of the passengers picked up by the Red Cross live in backwood cabins. Some of the isolated elderly who live alone in dilapidated housing have never been out of the area, and a trip in a Red Cross wagon is an unusual experience for them.
On a Friday run, the Red Cross wagon zooms through the beautiful, wealthy area of Middleburg and close by, in the St. Louis section, the driver picks up a car load of retired race track workers who need transportation to stores, doctors and social agencies.
Red Cross drivers have learned to cope with the rocky, rural roads. They brave summer floods and winter snows, to protect safe, convenient transportation for senior citizens.
In the winter, then roads and driveways are iced, a driver will carry a weak passenger safely to the wagon. The elderly are always escorted door-to-door.
On a Monday run in the Lovettsville section, an elderly lady is picked up for a shopping tour. When they return to her home, the driver packs the groceries in a wheelbarrow, pushes it up a steep hill, and then carts the bags into the house.
The welfare of the passengers is monitored by a staff of volunteers in the Leesburg office. For example, if a passenger fails to call in for a ride the day before a scheduled trip, a volunteer will telephone to ask if the senior needs help.
When a person does not show up for a scheduled pick-up, the driver uses her CB radio to notify the base. A volunteer is sent to investigate.
Passengers who need transportation on days when trips are not scheduled are accommodated by the Red Cross. In addition, the drivers do the grocery shopping for the blind and run essential errands for the homebound.
One driver, on call, became lost in a desolate, hilly area, her car mired in mud. Soon, she heard the whir of a chain saw. Following she sound, she walked into a man cutting down a tree. He hauled the car out of the mud, and guided her to a hilltop cabin where an elderly woman lay seriously ill. Together, they transferred the woman into the wagon, and delivered her to an area hospital.
"As a result of this experience," said Mary Suthpin, Red Cross executive director, "we equipped the wagon with a mobil CB unit."
The CB unit was a life saver for one senior passenger who became very ill. The driver of the Red Cross wagon relayed a messaged to the Red Cross headquarters which, in turn dispatched a rescue ambulance to the scene.
"In the short time of our operations," said Dutton, "we have noticed dramatic changes in passenger personalities. When they first hooked up with us, they were cold, grim people. Because they were isolated and lived alone, they didn't know how to behave with strangers. Now, they look forward to our rides and they are conversing with people their own age.
"It's so nice," continued Dutton, "to see these elderly people smiling again."