DARTS celebrates 40 years

Laurel Venhuizen, a DARTS volunteer, answered phones and sorted through mail at the West St. Paul office. She’s been involved in the Learning Buddy program for 13 years, helping out a kindergarten class at Kaposia Elementary in South St. Paul, and has volunteered with DARTS even longer than that. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

Starting in 1974, one old bus, two old airport limousines and a van transported seniors to classes at Inver Hills Community College — a service called DARTS. Now with about 60 vehicles, DARTS this spring expanded its Dial-A-Ride service to Farmington, Apple Valley and Lakeville. (Kaitlyn Roby/Review)

West St. Paul nonprofit aims to “enrich aging”

Marlys Tiedman recently had her last day volunteering at Salem Hills Elementary in Inver Grove Heights for this school year. She helped two boys with presentations on Nicaragua, while most of the class was abuzz, anxious for summer break.

There’s a chance it’ll be the last time the 77-year-old will volunteer in the DARTS Learning Buddy program. The fourth-grade teacher she’s worked with for 14 years, Diane Lewis, is retiring, and Tiedman recently found out her husband, Doug, has prostate cancer, meaning she’ll have to be available to drive him to appointments and treatments.

She’s not sure if she’ll be able to help out in another classroom in the fall, but she wants to.

“I’m not saying I’m not going back, because I enjoy it,” Tiedman said in an interview at her Inver Grove Heights apartment. “When you see them from the beginning of the year to the end, you can see they have really matured and grown. You know you’ve helped somewhat in that.

“I really enjoy seeing the look on a kid’s face when they have their aha moment.”

And she likes to keep busy in her retirement, she says, volunteering in the community, at her church in South St. Paul and through DARTS.

DARTS, a West St. Paul-based organization that’s celebrating its 40th anniversary with an open house June 5, offers services to seniors and caretakers, as well as training and opportunities to volunteer.

Four decades of DARTS

DARTS started as a community service of Inver Hills Community College. In 1974, a group of seniors wanted to take classes, but had a hard time getting to the school.

The solution? One old bus, two old airport limousines and a van transported the seniors — a service called DARTS (originally an acronym for Dakota Area Resources and Transportation for Seniors).

DARTS, a name shortened in 2008, now aims to keep seniors in their homes longer, support caregivers and serve seniors and students in the community. Even as the services and programs have expanded, the core mission has stayed the same, says Greg Konat, DARTS president and CEO.

“It’s about helping older adults remain independent and living a fruitful, thriving life,” Konat said in a recent interview at the West St. Paul campus. “I think we’ve stayed true to our mission all along.”

In the 1990s, DARTS began offering home maintenance and grocery services for low-income seniors. In 1997, the organization launched the Learning Buddy program, where older adults would work with elementary students.

DARTS today

Now with about 60 vehicles, DARTS this spring expanded its Dial-A-Ride service to Farmington, Apple Valley and Lakeville.

DARTS reportedly serves around 4,300 riders each year, totaling about 225,000 rides. More than 3,400 people take advantage of the DARTS home services and assistance, according to the organization’s tracking efforts.

More than 1,300 people volunteer with DARTS, helping with yard cleanup, visiting seniors at their homes and mentoring kids.

DARTS also offers education and supports groups, as well as services to allow caregivers a respite.

Mobility management

DARTS hopes to continue to collaborate with other related providers, such as Neighbors, ProAct and Lifeworks Services. Courtney L.B. Whited, the Mobility Management program director, has been charged with utilizing federal money on a two-year research and development project.

“We’re all doing the same mission, but how do we run more efficient?” Whited said. “Let’s get more people on everybody else’s busses, so that there’s less duplication.

“How can we get over that and coordinate?”

She said part of that could be developing a website, a sort of transportation exchange, ideally offering mobility brokerage along with a one-stop shop for providers and users.

Honoring seniors

While DARTS has many facets, it all comes down to “creating connections that enrich aging.”

Whited said she recently joined DARTS, in part because she’s “passionate about the aging population.”

“They are such a value to our community,” she said. “Let’s keep them out and about and connected.”

Konat said he’s spent much of his life building community while working with governmental agencies and nonprofits.

“I, too, have a passion for the idea of honoring and respecting older adults,” he said. “As a society, we have a tendency to see aging as a negative thing. DARTS believes that it’s a very positive thing, and that we need to honor it and tap into it, like the Learning Buddy program.”

As DARTS offers education, transportation and a flexible schedule in volunteering, Tiedman said she wants to encourage seniors to get involved and take advantage of what the organization offers.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “You gotta keep moving; you have to keep going.”

Kaitlyn Roby can be reached at 651-748-7815 and kroby@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/KRobyNews.

To learn more...

•  Visit dartsconnects.org.
•  Call 651-455-1560.
•  Attend an open house, which will include tours, food, music and family-friendly activities, 4-7 p.m. Thursday, June 5, at the DARTS Campus, 1645 Marthaler Lane, West St. Paul. There will also be a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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