How much would you pay to hear the words, “I don't know what I’d do without you?”
The city of Littleton is paying about 0.5 percent of its budget this year to hear them about 7,800 times, at least once from Rita Zavislan.
Zavislan has vision problems that forced her to give up driving several years ago, and she often found herself stuck at home.
“I felt like the world was going to come to an end,” said Zavislan. “But it didn't.”
That’s partly because she discovered the Omnibus, a free service offered to elderly and disabled Littleton residents. With 48 hours notice, it takes them anywhere in city limits — doctors, salons, even the veterans’ lodge.
It goes to a few places outside the city, notably some medical offices and Southwest Plaza, where lunch and shopping are a favorite outing. Several passengers March 2 said they would buy birthday cards for friends and family, and others looked forward to finding treats for themselves.
“I would be very sad without this,” said Helen Wood, 89, who was shopping for makeup and perhaps a new bedspread. “My daughter takes me to the grocery store, because she’s free enough from her job now to do that. But there are some things, like this outing, I would miss very much.”
Another popular destination is Buck Recreation Center, where folks can exercise, have lunch, play cards, socialize and more. That’s where the Omnibus found Shirley Whittlesey, Susie Schulte, Catherine Hawkins, Ann Jennings and June Wattles on that sunny morning. They met and became friends on the bus, and riding with them is like attending a boisterous tea.
“The Omnibus is the greatest thing I have found since moving to Littleton,” said Hawkins.
In some ways, the bus reflects Littleton’s hometown image. Zavislan has lived here since 1962 and said the bus allows her to keep going to familiar places.
“I told my kids I’m going to live the rest of my life in Littleton,” she said.
Curtis Grau actually went to Littleton High School with driver Judy Hamrock, and says she and the whole Omnibus program are great.
“They treat me with respect, and they’re flexible, and they don’t get too mad at me when I goof up,” he said.
Hamrock says she has the best job in the world. After staying home with her kids for 16 years, it’s fun for her to get out and about with her friendly riders. She cranks the oldies station for them and smiles when they know the words.
“They always say they love the music and they sing along, especially if we get Dean Martin,” she laughs.
There are some sad times, like when a passenger no longer needs a ride. Hamrock recalls one gentleman who always brought her a Tootsie Pop — finding one in the console after he passed was bittersweet.
“You do get attached,” she said. “I treat the people like I would my mother, and when you get attached, it’s hard.”
Hamrock’s mother lives in an assisted-living facility, so she’s comfortable with the trappings of age. She stresses there’s no such thing as too burdensome for the Omnibus. It has a lift for walkers and wheelchairs, and oxygen tanks, canes and other accessories never get in the way.
“She is a wonderful woman and so kind with her riders,” said Hawkins.
While many of Hamrock’s passengers acknowledge they miss driving, they say the Omnibus allows them freedom not everyone has.
“It was much easier when my keys were on my counter, and when I wanted to go, I picked up my keys and got in my car and went,” said Virginia Cryder. “But I’m grateful I have this option. If I lived on the east side of Broadway, I wouldn't.”
Omnibus, along with the similar Shopping Cart program and the Greater Littleton Youth Initiative, were the topic of an October 2011 study session prior to passage of the 2013 budget. City Manager Michael Penny said the discussion was intended for consideration of the programs in years following.
Mayor Debbie Brinkman said the intent was not to get rid of the programs, but to find alternate ways to fund them.
During the meeting, City Clerk Wendy Heffner described one passenger, a 40-year-old woman who uses a wheelchair who volunteers at a preschool three days a week; that’s good for her and the kids, so Omnibus takes her.
“That’s what we’re all about, helping people,” said Heffner.