Groundviews is Solid Ground’s quarterly print newsletter for our friends and supporters. Below is the November 2014 Groundviews lead story.
Ninus & Kathy Hopkins have been married for 45 beautiful years, and for more than half of those, they have both worked as Access Drivers for the Solid Ground Transportation (SGT) department. The kind of couple who lovingly finish each others’ sentences, they are now the longest-serving drivers on the team.
They were drawn to this work in the late ‘80s when they saw a driver help someone in a wheelchair get out of a van at the hospital where they were visiting Ninus’ mother. Ninus says, “This individual kind of lit a match in our vision and said, ‘Hey, this is what I do, and I like it. And if you want to try it, I’ll give you some information.’ I was kind of reluctant, but Kathy said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
Kathy adds, “Compliments to that person, because here we are, 26 years later.” But she says they wondered, “ ‘Are they even gonna hire a husband and wife? Let’s not tell them!’ But they took a chance, and they did!”
Today, Kathy and Ninus are among 110 SGT drivers who operate a fleet of 75 Access vehicles – providing door-to-door rides to appointments and services for adults who physically cannot access the fixed-route Metro bus system – as well as two buses for the Downtown Circulator fixed-route service.
Originally named Seattle Personal Transit, the program was launched in the late ‘80s by a Jesuit volunteer who drove people to appointments in a beat-up old van. The service soon combined with another small operation under the wing of Solid Ground’s predecessor, Fremont Public Association (FPA). Kathy comments, “I think it was a really good marriage for what Seattle Personal Transit was offering the community. We knew we were getting bigger, and it fit under that umbrella. It all meant helping somebody get what they needed, whether it’d be medical, or just social, or nutrition. It fit.”
Ninus reminisces, “Then, we said, ‘We’re family.’ We started building trust between each employee, and that’s what brought us [to be] successful in partnership. We decided this is where we belong – a fountain of knowledge, ready to tell everybody how happy we were to do this type of work.”
‘More than just drivers’
Back when Kathy and Ninus started driving, there were fewer than 10 drivers operating a fleet of approximately seven vehicles, only two of which had side-loading wheelchair lifts. (Today, all SGT vehicles are equipped with wheelchair loading apparatus and space to accommodate multiple wheelchairs and/or walkers.) The small size of the program and regular routes allowed for a connection between drivers and passengers – “And their families! And their pets!” interjects Kathy – that just isn’t possible with today’s varied routes and packed timetables.
“We were more than just drivers; it wasn’t just rides,” Kathy reflects, “We were the lookout.” For some passengers, she says, “Unless you communicated with their family – like, ‘She’s not remembering her keys,’ or ‘He’s not remembering to put socks on with his shoes’ – it might not be evident to them. They don’t see them every day, but I do. And if I could share that with them, then they could intervene: ‘Maybe they need a doctor’s visit.’ We were there to give them that information.”
Ninus reflects, “We were the eyes of the community, and we were there for safety.” He describes an incident where a visually impaired person began crossing the street into traffic. “I remember stopping the van, getting out when it was safe, running out, grabbing that person, tapping them on the shoulder saying, ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait! You’re crossing the wrong way!’ And bringing them back to the corner and waiting for the light, and then taking them across the street safely.”
A labor of love
As a mixed-race couple who married in the heart of the Civil Rights era and raised biracial children, Kathy and Ninus have experienced some of the worst of our nation’s racist realities, and this has sometimes extended to their work as drivers. Ninus reflects, “In the begin [sic], it was watch what you say, and be careful of how you approach somebody, and stand back and reach out, and don’t try to touch anybody unless they needed your assistance. We were very careful to be professional … but still be there to assist.”
Ninus survived some devastating experiences, including passengers setting their dogs on him, and one incident where a woman placed a handkerchief on his arm before she would accept his help so she wouldn’t have to touch his skin. Yet somehow, Ninus and Kathy consistently maintain compassion.
Ninus says, “This job is done from the heart and out of love. Every day, there’s some things that’ll make you cry, and some things that’ll make you giggle. Your motives are to be professional, to be caring, to be safe … to be a warm spirit. You always offer hope.” Kathy adds, “It wasn’t anything that deterred us from giving them that TLC that they needed to survive or get where they needed to go.”
“This is a job that everybody can’t do,” Ninus admits. “It takes a special type of person to take that extra step. And we’re blessed to be in an environment [and] shine by doing that extra step. And that’s just like our marriage: 45! Forty-five years!”
- Driving from the Heart & Out of Love: A short video from Ninus & Kathy’s interview