June Beconcini, a 92-year-old resident of Moraga who has called Lamorinda home for 65 years, described losing the ability to drive four years ago due to macular degeneration as a tough transition that quickly changed her life.

"It just took away my independence," she said. "Before, I could just hop in the car and go wherever I wanted to go and didn't feel that I had to depend upon somebody else."

Now, with the Lamorinda Spirit Van to take her on errands or to pick up groceries, Beconcini doesn't have to rely entirely on family members who live far away -- and has made a few new friends as well.

Driver Eddie Caravalho holds a walker as Willard Newton, 76, of Orinda, exits the Lamorinda Spirit Van in front of his home after having a hot lunch at the
Driver Eddie Caravalho holds a walker as Willard Newton, 76, of Orinda, exits the Lamorinda Spirit Van in front of his home after having a hot lunch at the Walnut Creek Senior Citizens Center on June 23, 2014. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

But as the 2014-2015 fiscal year approaches, Spirit Van operators and local leaders are seeking contributions to ensure the program can continue to take Beconcini and hundreds of other local seniors shopping and to appointments, church services and other destinations.

Earlier this month, Moraga Town Councilman Dave Trotter pledged to help and issued a public appeal to raise $3,000 to supplement the $9,000 Moraga has already allocated in its upcoming budget.

"I'm just trying to see if we can generate a little bit more support within the community for this program," Trotter said. "The town simply doesn't have the money, but the community might."

The Spirit Van falls under the umbrella of the city of Lafayette and, as an "enterprise fund," the service must raise all its own money, said director Mary Bruns.

Since its inception in 2006, the program has grown from a single, aging van to include four vehicles, one part-time staff driver and up to 15 volunteer drivers providing some 4,000 rides per year.

In 2013-2014, 47 percent of the Spirit Van's riders were Lafayette residents, 27 percent were from Moraga and 26 percent lived in Orinda.

As its services have increased, the program's budget has swelled to $148,000 for the upcoming fiscal year. In addition to Moraga's contribution, Lafayette has earmarked $25,000. The program's organizers raise the rest through a small fee for rides, donations and grants. Orinda does not contribute, but the nonprofit Orinda Community Foundation gave $3,000.

While adults 60 and older are eligible to use the Spirit Van, most users are in their 80s and 90s. A steady increase in ridership over the years is evidence of the gap it fills, supporters say -- and demand for such services will only grow as Contra Costa's population ages in coming decades. What sets the Spirit Van apart from some other programs that operate in Lamorinda, such as the Orinda Association's Seniors Around Town, Bruns said, is all the Spirit Van's vehicles feature hydraulic lifts to make them wheelchair accessible.

The Spirit Van is not in danger of having to shutter, she said, but its budget is a case where every dollar counts.

"We have made it work, but it's always been touch and go," Bruns said. "I'm not saying we wouldn't be able to stay in business if Moraga didn't give us that extra $3,000, but that extra $3,000 is very important."

Bruns is also hoping to attract more volunteer drivers and noted that a standard Class-C California driver's license is adequate to conduct the vehicles.

Almost as important as the van's destinations are the interactions passengers have on the way, said Eddie Caravalho, the Spirit Van's staff driver.

Caravalho has been behind the wheels of vans since the program's start and transports groups to the Walnut Creek Senior Center for the C.C. Café lunch program each weekday.

"I take them under my wing. We're like family here," Caravalho said. "We know each other's lives. We know the good, the bad, the sad, the happy."

  • For more information about volunteering with the Spirit Van, call 925-283-3534. Tax-deductible donations can be made to the city of Lafayette, with "Lamorinda Spirit/Moraga" in the memo line, and sent to Lamorinda Spirit, Lafayette Senior Services, 500 St. Marys Road, Lafayette, CA 94549.