TheCOMET bus on the downtown route.

Columbia, South Carolina | July 9, 2019

Columbia-area operator of mass transportation, The COMET, will help more residents get to the doctor and other medical appointments, thanks to a competitive $250,000 grant awarded to Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority. With the kick-off of the pilot program, The COMET will offer shuttle service to bus stops throughout Lexington and Richland counties to help residents complete important healthcare-related trips.

Access to medical care is essential, and many area residents face barriers that prevent them from traveling that first or last few miles to the bus stop. According to the Central Midlands Council of Governments, 26 of the 38 COMET routes are within a ¼-mile radius of one of the 14 hospital facilities and 13 dialysis centers in the service area. This pilot program would fill the gap between these short-distances and provide insights on shuttle services as a solution for transportation barriers.

The COMET pilot program was selected as one of 37 projects awarded under the Federal Transit Administration’s Access and Mobility Partnership Grants to pilot new and innovative mobility models in enhancing access to care. This pilot will feature the collaboration of several innovative organizations both locally and nationally to further its goal of becoming a “Mobility Agency,” according to John Andoh, Executive Director & CEO of The COMET.

Volunteer driver driving to pick up a passenger.

Feonix – Mobility Rising will be one of those collaborators, recruiting volunteer drivers who will operate the shuttles to and from bus stops.

“When you do not feel well, or you are in pain, walking a mile to the bus stop is often out of the question,” said Valerie Lefler, Feonix’s Executive Director. “The COMET is the most affordable transportation option and our volunteers’ mission is to help those traveling to medical appointments get to the bus easier, so they are not canceling those essential medical appointments and are able to get to the doctor the most affordable way possible. We look forward to helping facilitate the goals of The COMET pilot program.”

Shuttles will be arranged regionally throughout the two-county area and hours of operation will complement The COMET’s hours of service. Area residents or healthcare professionals will be able schedule and book rides via computer, phone call or a mobile application through the AARP Ride@50+SM Program, developed by AARP Driver Safety and powered by Feonix – Mobility Rising. In addition to rides on the shuttle service, rides on the bus and to medical or other coordinated care appointments can also be booked through the platform.

Additional organizations in The COMET’s pilot program planning team include the United Way of the Midlands, the Columbia VA Healthcare System, South Carolina Oncology Associates, and the Kappa Lambda Chi Military Fraternity Inc.

Man and woman riding the bus.

About The COMET

The COMET is a service of the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority and provides countywide public transit services on 38 fixed routes, two ReFlex services, with a vanpool service, subsidy programs with Lyft and Uber, 10 bikeshare stations in Columbia and DART ADA complementary paratransit service throughout Richland and eastern Lexington Counties. The COMET transports approximately 2.8 million passenger trips a year on a fleet of 81 buses and vans. Transit services are provided under contract with Transdev Service, Inc of Lombard, Illinois.

For additional “The COMET” information, please call (803) 255-7100, TDD/TTY: 711 through the relay service, email: or visit Catch The COMET…We Will Take You There!

About Feonix - Mobility Rising

Headquartered in Lincoln, Nebraska, Feonix is a national non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing mobility options for vulnerable and underserved individuals. Using innovative technology, education, training, and volunteer driver programs Feonix is breaking down barriers in access to healthcare, employment, education, and social services.

For more information, please visit

Ruth Jones and Valerie Lefler

It was a cool winter morning, and Ruth was getting ready for the day just like she had done a thousand times before, but that morning, something wasn’t quite right. Growing up, she used to do regular breast exams, but as life got busier over the years, she no longer found the time to do them. It had been years, but that morning something told her she needed to check. That morning, she found a lump.

Less than two days later, Ruth was in an oncologist’s office staring at the results of the biopsy.

Ruth says she will remember that day as long as she lives, staring down at her hands, hearing the words, “Ruth, you have ductal carcinoma,” said her doctor. Ruth felt like it was something out of a movie, not her real life.

She held her breath, and looked up at her doctor wondering, is this it?

He continued, seeing the fear in her eyes, “Ruth, you have cancer, but we’re going to fight it.”

And sitting in the doctor’s office that day, Ruth knew she was not only going to fight it, but she was going to win.

Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Ruth was always competitive, even from a young age. Track was her favorite sport, and in high school, she placed first in the state for the 60-meter dash.

Ruth was going to win in this race as well.

However, nothing could have prepared her for the aftereffects of chemotherapy.

For three months during her treatments, she was the sickest she had ever been in her life. She says does not remember much about those days, but she does remember the love and support of the women in her senior living community.

Laughing with her, praying with her, cooking meals, and even bathing her when she was so sick she couldn’t move, Ruth was and is so grateful for all of their support. “It was like they had this sixth sense” she said. “They always just knew when to show up – when I needed them the most. They were my angels.”

However, not all of her friends could drive, and there were literally hundreds of trips she needed to take.

All the doctor appointments, treatments, and getting fluids and medications – it was so overwhelming. But she believed God would provide, and she would get through this.

One day, a friend shared with her about the AARP Ride@50+SM Program, a new program for finding and booking local transportation options when you can’t or don’t want to drive yourself, and Ruth thought she’d give it a try.

For her, it was God providing an answer.

Now she could just call the Ride@50+ Program, book a ride, and the driver would show up at the requested time – sometimes even as soon as a few minutes after her call.

She didn’t have to lie awake at night and worry if her ride was going to show, if she was going to make it to her follow-up appointments, or if she was going to be stuck waiting hours.

Today, Ruth is winning the race.

Today, Ruth is cancer-free.

Not only has she won her race in battling cancer, but now she has her sights set on getting back in shape and competing in the Senior Olympics.

Melanie Dalton

Anyone who has the opportunity to meet and talk with Melanie Dalton can tell there is a special quality and energy that she brings when she walks into the room, almost like magic. As the AARP Ride@50+SM Program is now actively providing rides and support to individuals and local organizations like dialysis clinics, oncology centers, and veteran’s programs, finding the right leader for the Columbia community was a critical step. That leader and the new Ride@50+ Senior Area Manager as of June 2019, is Melanie Dalton.

Melanie brings extensive experience launching a variety of innovative programs around the world. From Canada to Costa Rica, to Australia, and beyond – her tales of travels are second only to the stories she shares about her clients’ success. As a local example of Melanie’s innovation in 2017, while employed by the retail industry, Melanie was approached by leadership from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) with the idea of implementing a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – Education (SNAP-Ed) program in a grocery chain in Columbia, SC. The concept was a win for all involved: the consumer was provided with education and financial support from SNAP-Ed for food purchases, SCDHEC was able to implement a community program to benefit the underserved population of Columbia, and the grocery chain attracted new customers and increased sales. The program has since been successfully implemented in multiple stores.

Beyond Melanie’s experience launching programs, she has been a part of the Columbia community for the past 20 years, raising two amazing children, as well as singing in the She Sings and Eastminster Presbyterian Church choirs. She is highly involved with welcoming newcomers to Columbia through Meetup, an international organization that seeks to connect people with common interests, and she enjoys social opportunities through both church and community participation.

Supporting innovative technology and community involvement is not for the faint at heart. It takes courage, patience, optimism, and boundless amounts of energy. In other words, it must be a calling. Melanie demonstrates genuine compassion and caring for each person with whom she interacts, with the ability to meet them where they are in that moment. Melanie understands the unique challenges faced by older adults, caregivers, and social workers trying to find and book reliable local transportation options easily. She knows the importance of making it to that appointment or that grandchild’s recital, and her goal is to help the Columbia community stay connected, healthy, and mobile.

As part of the AARP Ride@50+ Program, Melanie will be working with community leaders to help the program impact as many people as possible. She will also be coordinating and supporting medical facilities, senior living communities, social service agencies, and other non-profits in finding mobility solutions for their patients and clients.

Melanie will be leading hands-on, in-person training sessions for individuals and organizations using the online booking platform and app. She will also collaborate with volunteer drivers and local transportation providers coordinating any customer service requests and on-site tech support needs.

On any given day, Melanie will wear about 30 different hats - wearing them all with grace, enthusiasm, and professionalism because she truly knows every ride matters and makes a difference. “It is my honor and privilege to share my more than 25 years of business leadership through a project dedicated to supporting individuals with challenges that inhibit personal freedom,” Melanie says. “By providing affordable and accessible transportation options, we are helping others to improve their quality of life, an important part of sustaining independence and progress for people in need. We truly have the opportunity to change lives every day! I am excited to get started and give back to the community that has provided my family with opportunity for happiness and success.”

We welcome Melanie to the AARP Ride@50+ Program team in Columbia, SC!

Claudia Brooks

To most people, the Bend of Four Holes Swamp sounds like a place that people may go on Halloween to get spooked at a haunted house. Good guess, but no. The Bend of Four Holes Swamp is the farm community where Claudia Brooks, Director of the Always United program and Development Officer for the United Way of the Midlands, grew up. It is located about 65 miles from Columbia, South Carolina. “The Bend,” as it is known, is home to families that could trace their roots to the very beginning of South Carolina statehood.

It is simply and wonderfully, The Bend – a safe, unchanging place where people looked out for each other. It is home to generations of recipes for the world’s best macaroni and cheese casseroles and home-cooked church dinners. It is a place with skilled and resourceful people helping each other in times of need, no questions asked.

When Claudia grew up in The Bend, it was situated far from many basic necessities, and residents had to carefully plan their trips to “town.” That part of the state had very limited transportation options, and these trips were a bridge to the resources that would sustain the families. The community made sure no one was left behind in The Bend; young people were sent door-to-door to residents who couldn’t make the trip to see what was needed and lists were triple-checked. There was no hopping in the car for a do-over if something was forgotten; it would have to wait for the next trip.

As a teenager growing up in the late sixties, Claudia saw the changes happening in the world on the television and wanted to be part of that change. Her father was a former newspaper reporter who had returned to The Bend to run the family farm for his widowed mother. He always encouraged Claudia, saying, “There is a world outside The Bend!” An education, a driver’s license and transportation would create the independence that propelled Claudia into that world.

After graduating from the University of South Carolina, Claudia was hired at a television station in Florence, South Carolina. It was the beginning of a 30-year career in the broadcasting business, taking her to cities like Dallas, New Orleans, New York and Chicago. To a farm girl, it was truly an eye-opening experience to see the level of opportunity and independence that easy access to transportation can provide.

Ultimately, the family values that Claudia learned growing up in The Bend brought her back to South Carolina to be near her parents as they aged. Although her broadcasting career had come to an end, Claudia was not ready for retirement. Thankfully, a perfect match for her talent and where she was in life came to her through an opportunity at the United Way of the Midlands (UWM).

“United Way, like the community in The Bend, brings together the people and resources to help others in their time of need,” Claudia remarked. “It’s rewarding to work with staff and volunteers whose purpose is to improve the quality of lives in the community. I’ve experienced countless examples of lives being changed. The second grader who couldn’t read and now can, the 17-year-old just out of foster care being invited into a safe and nurturing place to call home while continuing his schooling and holding down a job, the senior living at home alone receiving meals delivered by a friendly visitor every day. Growing up in The Bend helped prepare me to be part of the United Way team that helps change lives now.”

When asked why she values the AARP Ride@50+ Program, powered by Feonix–Mobility Rising, coming to Columbia Claudia said, “The Ride@50+ Program matches both my personal experience and beliefs, as well as those of UWM. I direct Always United, the affiliate program for United Way supporters who are retirees and late-career individuals. Always United’s purpose is to support UWM in creating long-term solutions for people in need. One of the critical needs that we uncovered is the lack of easily accessible, affordable transportation for clients being served by non-profits in our community. In many ways it was like The Bend all over again, resources that were out of reach. Independence and progress squashed by the lack of transportation.”

Just as Always United members started investigating the transportation challenges in Columbia and looking for solutions, Claudia received a call to participate in the AARP Ride@50+ Program’s Mobility Leadership Circle, a group of local advocates and advisors to the program. She thought it was great to see prominent organizations like AARP recognizing the importance of transportation and launching pilots like the Ride@50+ Program in Richland and Lexington counties to try and solve those transportation challenges. “Multiple organizations independently coming to the same conclusions about the needs in our community is truly heartwarming,” said Claudia.

Claudia sees tremendous value in addressing transportation needs in the community. And timing is everything. Recently, she has become much more dependent on others for transportation to medical appointments and rides to and from work. Claudia shares, “This is something that I did not foresee. I’ve used the AARP Ride@50+ Program to arrange pick up and return visits to specialists, knowing that they would be on time and safe. It’s affirmed the transportation initiative that Always United members saw as a necessity.” She adds, “I didn’t plan on being an early user of the AARP Ride@50+ Program, but I am heartened to see that the need that we identified is being met faster than we ever imagined. Thank you for allowing me to maintain my independence as I go about meeting my personal, professional and medical needs.”

Together with local advisors and leaders like Claudia, the Ride@50+ Program continues to expand its reach and bring potentially life-changing transportation options to the Columbia, South Carolina community.