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Paratransit van and Pace Suburban Bus

This is part of our Moving You blog series, which highlights programs managed by the RTA that expand transportation options and access to transit for all.

About 10 years ago, Valerie Smick of Yorkville gained independence when her mom signed her up for Kendall Area Transit (KAT). The service was a new dial-a-ride option in Kendall County that allowed Smick, who has cerebral palsy, to schedule van pick-ups whenever she needed a lift. She took KAT to and from the gym, her jobs in the school system and a local spice shop, and occasionally for shopping trips. Where before she had to schedule her outings around her mom’s availability, with KAT, she set her own agenda.

In addition to independence, riding with KAT for over a decade meant Smick gained friendships.

“It doesn’t take me long to make friends,” she said. “There are drivers that would take me to work every morning, and then a different driver would pick me up every afternoon. That’s how it happens; you see the same driver every day and you become friends.”

KAT is administered by Kendall County and operated by the Voluntary Action Center (VAC). The program serves primarily seniors and people with disabilities from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, operating throughout all of Kendall County with delivery points outside of the county within a 20-mile radius of Yorkville. This year, the RTA will provide $350,000 in federal operating funding to support KAT through the Section 5310: Enhanced Mobility of Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities Program.

This funding will allow the program to expand weekday hours and begin offering Saturday service, which will better address dialysis and non-emergency medical needs, as well as work schedules outside of 9-5 hours. The funding also supported formalizing mobility management in staff duties. Project manager for KAT Diannaha Thompson has taken on those mobility management responsibilities this year. Thompson was hired as the program’s first dispatcher in 2010, and she is now a jack of all trades with a focus on community outreach—giving presentations to local agencies that work with seniors and people with disabilities, offering travel training for individuals who are riding for the first time, managing social media, creating flyers, and anything else that can spread the word about KAT.

At the heart of KAT is the people—both the riders and the workers, and the relationships they build.

“We don’t usually have a high turnover rate, so we’ve been able to develop relationships with a lot of our clientele,” Thompson said. “Getting out and working keeps Valerie going and [gives] her drive, and we’ve gotten to see her grow and flourish. We’ve become like a small family, in a sense. Seeing her interact with her drivers, jokingly tease with each other, it was fun. You could tell it really meant a lot to her and the drivers both.”

Smick said one of her favorite things to joke about with her drivers is football.

“We’d talk about my Packers and his Bears—that was fun,” she said with a laugh. “I love it because I can go places without waiting for other people. I don’t have to wait for my mom, I can just call and take the bus wherever I want to go. It’s a good way to be independent with my disability, and that’s not easy.”

Working for a program that offers independence and connection to seniors and people with disabilities means a lot to Thompson—and is one reason she’s stuck around from the beginning.

“It’s a good feeling,” Thompson said. “What we are there to do is help people remain independent or find their independence. It’s hard to describe other than to say it feels good, and it feels like each rider is another relationship we’re working on building.”

Note: Although Kendall County is outside the RTA service area, federal Section 5310 funding is distributed to the RTA for use within the whole Chicago Urbanized Area, which includes Kendall County.

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Read posts about how the RTA collaborates with CTA, Metra and Pace to plan, invest in and move the Chicago region’s transit system.

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