Sixty-five-year-old Jim O'Donnell has had trouble getting around for a long time, but Neighbor Ride recently has stepped in like a helpful friend.
"They've always responded," he said.
O'Donnell said his life took a hard turn long ago -- when he was 14 he learned that he had polio. He had to abandon athletics, his planned escape from the poverty of his western Howard County home, where he was one of nine children. After high school, he wanted to join the Army but was rejected because of his disability.
"I was bitter a long time," he said.
O'Donnell developed a hard-hewn work ethic, taking clerical and office manager jobs and driving a tractor-trailer. He got married, but that didn't last. He saw little of his wife and children after they moved out.
He lived with his mother in her Columbia townhouse after his father died in 1984. Three years later, he lost his driver's license after he was involved in an accident, and he began depending on family, friends and county buses for transportation. After his mother's death in 1991, his health began deteriorating, and he ultimately stopped working.
In 1998, he qualified for Social Security disability benefits, and his older brother moved into the apartment below his and helped out with driving and cooking until the brother became sick with prostate cancer. Last July, O'Donnell found his brother dead in his apartment.
"There's always something I have to worry about, and usually it's out of my control," he said.
O'Donnell first called Neighbor Ride early this year, and he has used the service to renew his state identification card for disability benefits, apply for food stamps and see medical specialists for his back pain and heart problems. O'Donnell said Neighbor Ride also will enable him to plan a shopping trip to a discount store.
A voracious reader who shelves books part time at Columbia's Central Library, O'Donnell quoted part of the last line of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," words that repeatedly have played out in his life.
"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
Amritha Narasimhan is soft-spoken, polite and attentive -- traits honed during her 30 years as an elementary school teacher in India. The small, dark-haired woman is a familiar presence at the Domestic Violence Center in Columbia, where, with the help of Neighbor Ride, she volunteers twice a week to assist victims and their families.
"It's very good to see the children," said Narasimhan, 70. "I don't know what works in their minds, but they don't look happy. If I can bring a smile on their face, that is what brings me inner joy."
Narasimhan's sense of purpose steadied her earlier in her life, when she lost her husband in a motorcycle accident in New Delhi. At 36, she became a widow with three young daughters. Her parents pleaded with her to return to their home, but Narasimhan stayed in New Delhi and raised her children while teaching full time.
"The past is like a dream for us," she said. "I'm not going back to the past. I think, what is to be done next."
Narasimhan came to the United States in 1987 to live with her second daughter, Geeta, and her husband and children. Keeping her car seemed an unnecessary expense, so she gave it away six years ago and has relied on family members for transportation. When the family moved from Bowie to Clarksville three years ago, Narasimhan found a part-time job in child care at the Columbia Gym. Sometimes, she would make the 20-minute walk home from work, but it was difficult in rain and snow. Although her daughter and son-in-law didn't complain about giving her daily rides, she knew it added to their long workdays.
She called Neighbor Ride in November, soon after its premiere, and now relies on the service three times a week. She recently left her part-time job to expand her volunteerism beyond the Domestic Violence Center and the Bain Center to take on new duties assisting nurses and patients at Howard County General Hospital.
"My main goal in my life is to help people," Narasimhan said. "Let me use this time that is most precious to me to help."
Gontran Lamberty, 38, became a Neighbor Ride driver after he tore a ligament playing soccer. He had early morning physical therapy sessions in Columbia and ended up riding an exercise bicycle next to Dick Kirchner, a transportation activist involved in Neighbor Ride's creation.
After talking to Kirchner, Lamberty thought about his parents and their neighbors, many of whom still live on the street where he grew up in Oakland Mills. He knew that for some of them getting out was getting harder.
"I wanted to do something that kind of helped," Lamberty said. "Something that maybe they would use in the future as well."
Now Lamberty, a telecommunications market analyst who commutes 38 miles each way on weekdays from his home in Elkridge to his office in McLean, has added to his driving duties. Once a month, he devotes weekend afternoons to taking seniors to their appointments. Sometimes he drives an 84-year-old woman to church, listening to her stories of growing up in another country.
He tries to respond when Neighbor Ride asks whether volunteers can pick up an extra ride.
"There's a need for it," he said. "I just hope more people can do it."
-- By SUSAN DEFORD
To request a ride or seek information about becoming a volunteer, call Neighbor Ride at 410-884-7433.