When Sharon Baker’s mother died in 1994, the Delray Beach resident didn’t know how to grieve.
After all, her mother hid the severity of her cancer diagnosis from Baker and her brother. How was Baker supposed to have time to come to terms with what was happening, when she didn’t know what was happening?
“So when she passed away, I had all this sadness and anger, and I said, ‘I want to do something because I couldn’t do enough for her,’ ” Baker said.
That’s when she became involved with the American Cancer Society — a path that took her to the organization’s Road to Recovery program.
Baker has donated her time to the transportation arm of the American Cancer Society for about 15 years. She’s part of a nationwide collection of volunteers who offer rides to treatment for tens of thousands of cancer patients throughout the United States each year.
In Florida alone in 2015, Road to Recovery drivers completed more than 24,000 trips, connecting cancer patients with care. The program also marked 7.5 million rides nationwide since it was founded in 1983.
“That has given me the opportunity to give back and to help,” Baker said. “So it makes me feel a little bit better that I’m kind of helping my mom. Kind of.”
Baker is one of the top three Road to Recovery drivers in Palm Beach County.
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Another is Steve Straus, a retired Boca Raton resident who became involved in the American Cancer Society to honor his father, who died of cancer.
He began using his Ford Escape about four years ago to help the program accomplish its mission: Get as many cancer patients to their treatment appointments as possible.
“These are people that really need help,” Straus said. “And a lot of them are either too old to drive, or too sick to drive, or after the treatment they’re in no shape to drive.”
Elizabeth Logiodice, Road to Recovery program manager for the American Cancer Society in Palm Beach County, said transportation and lodging are second only to research in on the cancer society’s list of priorities.
Funding for the program — which is free for patients — comes primarily from American Cancer Society’s special events, including Relay for Life, Making Strides for Breast Cancer and galas held throughout the year.
But the program needs more drivers. And that’s where why the American Cancer Society is reaching out to the public.
As more patients find out about the program, Road to Recovery is seeking more volunteers to get behind the wheel.
“If you have a driver’s license, you have all the tools you need to save a life,” Logiodice said.
But to Baker and Straus, the work isn’t just about saving lives — it’s about making a connection.
‘They do more for us’
For Baker, satisfaction comes in the connections she makes with her passengers. One of the patients she works with has been riding with her for about a year. In that time, she’s helped Baker gain a new perspective — especially when it comes to aging.
Baker’s mother was 53 when she died. So, as Baker recently approached her own 55th birthday, she began to get nervous, poring over the years in her head and comparing her age with her mother’s.
That stopped after a conversation one day while taking the patient to treatment.
“I was complaining to her about, ‘Oh gosh, I’m turning 55. I don’t want to get older. I don’t want anymore birthdays,’” Baker said. But the patient, who is about a year younger than Baker, quickly objected to that mindset.
“She said to me, ‘You know, you shouldn’t complain about your birthday and getting a year older. I’m just hoping that I can live to see my next birthday,’” Baker said.
That conversation helped Baker to see getting older as a blessing, rather than a burden.
“That’s huge,” she said. “That just kind of shook my world.
“They do more for us than we do for them, that’s for sure,” she added.
‘It rewards you internally’
Straus said in his experience, patients are grateful not just to get to treatment, but to get out of the house and have someone different to talk to.
“I have some people say, ‘Look at how pretty the sky is,’” he said. “So many people take that for granted, but for them it’s really exciting, because they get out and get some fresh air and move around.
“The treatment is almost the least of it,” he added.
Baker agreed, saying the patient she works with is happy “to get away for a little while.” The pair spend their time in the car and at treatment appointments chatting — often about nothing related to cancer or chemotherapy or radiation, the things that often consume waking moments for those with cancer.
“I feel like that’s where God wants me to be: helping her get out of her space,” Baker said. “I’m her cheerleader and I never want her to give up.”
Both Baker and Straus said the reward for participating in Road to Recovery goes beyond a sense of satisfaction.
Straus has found it to be the perfect combination of retirement hobby and philanthropy.
“You’ll feel so good giving some of your time and interest out to somebody else,” he said. “It rewards you internally … to reach out and help these folks who may not be able to get to treatment without you.”
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
To learn more about Road to Recovery, either as a volunteer or patient, call 800-227-2345 or go to www.cancer.org.