There are currently 350 people in Portsmouth who probably owe their sanity to Craig Beetlestone.
Without him and his dedicated team they would be trapped in their homes, isolated from the rest of society and sinking into the depths of depression.
He has more than 1,000 people on his books who might turn to him for help at any moment to do something most of us take for granted – the ability to walk out of your home and go anywhere you fancy.
Craig is the man who organises the lifelines which are the city’s Dial-a-Ride and Community Transport schemes.
And before you start thinking of grey-haired folk in wheelchairs with their legs swathed in tartan blankets, think again.
Of course, there are customers of his who fit that description, but he provides an escape for increasing numbers of younger people, many of them amputees, others struck down at an early age with multiple sclerosis.
Without his posse of drivers they would not get to the shops, let alone enjoy an afternoon on the seafront.
Craig, 51, has been the transport manager for both schemes for the past two-and-a-half years. He comes from a military background, experience which is more than a little handy when it comes to organising the logistics of collecting and returning hundreds of people from and to their homes each week. It’s a task he does with his team from an office in the Community First for Portsmouth headquarters in Commercial Road.
But it was cancer and his rehabilitation which helped turn him to a career of making life more bearable for those with short or long-term disabilities.
‘We’ve got 1,100 people registered with us and 350 who use us regularly – that’s 350 people who would be sitting looking at their four walls day in, day out probably spiralling into depression.
‘Mental illness costs the health service huge amounts each year and I know that some of our customers would be using their precious resources if they didn’t have their weekly, or in some cases daily, trip out with us.
‘I hope we enhance their lives. That’s certainly our aim with our bespoke service. It gives people a chance to get out and have a social life again, whether it’s just a trip to the local Co-op or a summer outing for a club to Paultons Park.’
Craig adds: ‘I know it’s a cliche about wanting to put something back into society, but that’s exactly how I and my team of minibus drivers feel.’
His Dial-a-Ride service is staffed by salaried minibus drivers who are not only qualified to operate the vehicles with their ramps and lifts for wheelchairs, but are trained to relate to some of the most needy members of society.
‘They talk with our customers not at them,’ he says. ‘They have to relate to each person’s specific condition.
‘For example, with a blind person in a wheelchair, you need to tell them that you are about to strap their chair into the bus and they should expect some jolting.’
Dial-a-Ride operates only within the city’s boundaries, but some customers have found ways of extending its reach.
‘We have one lady who books us to take her to Mother Kelly’s fish and chip restaurant in Southampton Road, right on the city’s boundary.
‘Her family then come and pick her up and take her to their home in Portchester for the day and we collect her from the same place later on. It’s all part of our bespoke service.’
Craig continues: ‘We’re all about caring for people with genuine difficulties who, because of their disability, can’t use public transport. It could be a temporary or permanent disability and they do not have to be blue badge holders.’
The Community Transport scheme operates differently and the buses are driven by volunteers for whom there are always vacancies, Craig adds quickly.
Groups hire the transport for outings with the most popular times being Christmas, Easter and throughout the summer.
And in these financially straitened times the service, largely funded by Portsmouth City Council, is always looking for ways to make some cash.
So, earlier this year Craig and his team became accredited minibus driver trainers with the MiDas (Minibus Drivers’ Awareness Scheme) to help would-be drivers through the mass of paperwork needed to operate one of these vehicles.
It also works closely with the Shopmobility scheme which is based in a portable building off Arundel Street, Landport.
It’s home to dozens of mobility scooters of varying sizes which can cope with anybody weighing up to 35 stones.
Craig’s eyes light up when 81-year-old Jean Gibson trundles in. She lost the use of her legs when an operation on her spine went wrong. She’s just been shopping.
‘I can’t praise this service highly enough,’ she says. ‘I book a Dial-a-Ride service which picks me up from home, brings me to Shopmobility where I get a scooter and then I go off and do whatever I want. It’s given me so much freedom. It’s sort of given me my legs back. If it wasn’t for both these services I’d be stuck in doors all day going mad...’
HOW TO USE DIAL-A-RIDE
Disabled people of any age who live in Portsmouth can use the service if their disability makes it difficult or impossible to get to a bus stop or onto a bus.
You need to register before making a booking. To do that call (023) 9287 7146 between 8am and 3.30pm Monday-Friday.
Bookings can be made up to the three days in advance and fares are £2.50 for a single trip, £4 return.
Journeys are free for holders of blind bus passes and travel tokens are taken.
You can travel between 8.20am-5pm Monday to Friday, and 9am-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays.
Members can travel anywhere within the city’s boundaries except to day centres or hospitals.
Combined tickets for Dial-a-Ride and Portsmouth Shopmobility are available.
If you would like to be considered as a volunteer driver for the community transport scheme, call Craig on (023) 9287 7308.