It’s a chilly Thursday morning in the Wairarapa and Red Cross Community Transport driver Richard Whitney is preparing for his weekly round trip from Masterton to Featherston. Today he’s collecting members of a Parkinson’s support group for an exercise class. For many of those attending it’s their favourite activity but without Richard’s help they simply wouldn’t be able to get there.

Not that you’d know it from talking to Richard. The 160km he drives in a day doesn’t faze him because he loves driving. He also likes the social aspect, and as he collects his clients – some from inside their homes – the bond he has with the people he picks up is clearly very strong.

“I enjoy the Parkinson’s Group, they’re a good group,” says Richard. “They’re always really grateful just for having the ride and for what we do for them. It wouldn’t be possible if they had to get a taxi or somebody else to do it.”

The feeling is obviously mutual. As we return to Masterton, Richard’s passengers are full of praise for him and the Red Cross Community Transport service.

“Without Richard we wouldn’t be able to get to Masterton. Look at Ken [another passenger], Richard goes into the house and brings him out, and helps him into the van. [Otherwise] He wouldn’t be able to go,” says Harry.

As more people arrive for the exercise class, there’s obviously a strong social connection between them. Community Educator Jane Flowerday has been running the group for six years, and it’s now more popular than ever, with 30 people regularly attending.

“Engaging people in social activities with exercise is very important for the management of Parkinson’s,” says Jane. “It’s the one thing we can do to maintain people’s wellness, and there’s evidence that rewiring and remodeling of the brain is possible with the right exercise programmes.”

For Jane it’s “absolutely imperative” the Community Transport service is maintained as over half of her clients need supported transport.

“The Red Cross drivers are fabulous, they’re so supportive and so obliging and helpful and they seem to be well trained and just really good people.”

Leah, a member of the group, believes the exercise class helps in managing her condition and coping with everyday life.

“Because of our health issues, it wouldn’t be possible to join the class if we didn’t have help of the Red Cross,” she says.

When Jane first started people didn’t really know each other and they would simply come to the class and leave, now they sit down and have a cup of tea and a chat at the end of the class.

“They’ve all worked hard, they feel good,” says Jane. “They’re just so much more socially inclined, and I’ve seen the physical benefits as well. It’s been really good.”

Once the socialising is finished, members of the group help each other to the van, and soon Richard is on his way back to Featherston. While he’s always putting his hand up for driving work – even on a Saturday – the Parkinson’s group is one he takes special care with.

“My motivation is just to be doing something,” says Richard. “In my working life, I never knew where I was going to be from one day to the next. I couldn’t do a lot of volunteering. So, volunteering now is a good part of my life.”