When Mike Sapiens was diagnosed with neck cancer last year, he suddenly found himself unable to drive or even take the bus to places he needed to go, including the grocery store and doctors’ appointments. So, Mike signed up for Access, a service of King County Metro that allowed him to request rides from his door to almost anywhere in the county.
“It was always a blessing, having someone to pick me up and get me safely to where I had to go,” Mike says. “That was – God, that was everything. You know, your mobility is precious.”
Now fully recovered from his cancer treatment, Mike is returning the favor by signing up as a driver for Solid Ground Transportation (SGT), which operates a portion of King County Metro’s Access routes. After about three weeks of training late this spring, Mike joined a crew of about 75 drivers who work around the clock to help make sure that people unable to use regular public transportation can get where they need to go. Together, the family of SGT drivers provided more than 300,000 rides per year before the pandemic, serving about 33,000 individual people annually.
But being an SGT driver isn’t just about moving wheelchair-accessible vans around the county. Sure, drivers do receive intensive training about how to safely operate their vehicles, but they also spend hours learning and practicing how to best support people with a range of physical and mental disabilities while also respecting their humanity and independence.
“You have to have a love of people and an ability to adjust, because you don’t know about a person’s abilities until you meet them,” says Shelley Hawkins, a passenger assistance expert who’s been training drivers at SGT for more than 20 years. “And you have to have grace. If we don’t allow for grace, there’s no point.”
No experience required – just heart
Being an SGT driver requires empathy, patience, and a love of people, but there are few other job requirements, making it perfect for people who have limited job experience or are new to the country. To start, applicants should have a good driving record, a clean criminal background, and basic English skills. The rest of the training and certification required to be an SGT driver is provided by Solid Ground during paid hours. (To learn about job requirements and expectations, as well as how you can earn a $2,000 hiring bonus, go to the Bus Operator job posting on the Solid Ground careers page.)
“It’s a good opportunity for anybody who is passionate about helping people and serving people, but doesn’t necessarily have a lot of work experience,” says Abdel Elfahmy, who started as an SGT driver in 2014 and now serves as Operations Manager.
Training for SGT drivers typically lasts three weeks but can go as long as needed to get a new driver ready for their first route on their own. New hires receive certification training in CPR, first aid, advanced driving, and passenger assistance. They learn how to inspect a vehicle before and after taking it off the lot to make sure it’s safe to operate. They spend hours in the vans observing an experienced driver to learn how to safely operate the vehicles while following all traffic rules and Solid Ground policies.
Help that respects the individual
But perhaps the most important part of the training is learning how to both respect and anticipate passenger needs, which can include any number of physical, mental, and sensory disabilities.
On a recent rainy afternoon at the SGT transit yard in South Park, Shelley worked with a group of five new drivers to roleplay through every aspect of providing a safe ride for a passenger. They practiced behaviors like greeting them at their door and helping them off the van at their destination. Shelley uses a motorized wheelchair and Access services herself, so her instructions are drawn from personal experience in addition to Metro’s training program.
When one of the new drivers greets her at the door, Shelley reminds them to double check where she’s going so there’s no confusion. She shows the drivers the proper way to use an extended arm to support a passenger who uses a cane or is unsteady on their feet. And she demonstrates how drivers should safely secure her chair to the lift and then to the van itself, while still respecting her “personal bubble.”
Shelley even coaches drivers on the best language to use with passengers to respect their independence. Instead of telling a passenger “I’m going to help you back onto the lift,” she says they should ask, “Can you back onto the lift?”
“We’re basically showing the drivers how to be helpful and how to make sure that the passengers are treated with respect so that they get the help they deserve,” Abdel says. “Because that’s the main goal of the whole Access paratransit service.”
More than just a job
Drivers come to SGT for a variety of reasons, but many are attracted by the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives every day. For passengers who have no other way to get around, Access is a vital link to the outside world – and often the only way people who live alone can connect with other people.
“The majority of passengers have no other transportation other than this service, so they rely on it almost 100% to get to life-sustaining services like grocery shopping, medical appointments, even visiting families and friends,” Abdel says. “It’s also an opportunity for somebody to check on them, make sure they’re doing OK. So for some people, it really is an essential part of their lives.”
Shelley says the Access program gives her the freedom to choose what she does and where she goes.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It may take 2½ hours sometimes, but it’s my choice, and anybody who works here understands how important that is,” she says. “It’s my ability to do what I want to do, and I’m so grateful for it.”
Mike says he decided to join SGT after retiring from running his own business because he wanted to give back and help others. In fact, many SGT drivers have retired from other careers and were looking for opportunities to work part time in meaningful work.
“They want to continue to give, but they want to do it in a different way,” Shelley says. “That’s the kind of person we want.”