by Jeff Hage

APG of East Central Minnesota

The white Trailblazer Transit bus rumbled its way down a dirt road southwest of Buffalo before stopping in front of a farm house.

The doors of the bus usually open for Trailblazer clients in need of a ride from the Wright County transportation service.

But on a blustery morning Thursday, April 9, Wendy Ling and Darek Vetsch exited the bus with two bags of meals in their hands.

Ling is a member of the Buffalo Covenant Church, which volunteers to deliver food through Meals on Wheels in April. Vetsch is a Monticello resident and a commissioner on the Wright County Board who sits on the Trailblazer Transit joint powers board.

Both were volunteering their time to ensure that meals were making their way to Wright County residents in need of nutritional services — services that have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of volunteer meal deliverers has diminished due to health concerns associated with the coronavirus.

At the same time, the stay-at-home order imposed March 20 by Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz decimated the ridership on Trailblazer buses.

“We lost 80 to 90% of our riders,” said Jake Nelson, director of operations for Trailblazer Transit.

That resulted in idle buses and a lack of work for Trailblazer drivers.

Nelson and Gary Ludwig, executive director of Trailblazer Transit, brainstormed on how the transit service could continue to serve the public during the current challenging times.

One initiative implemented last week was to provide rides outside its service area to veterans needing transportation to Veterans Affairs hospitals and clinics in the Twin Cities metro area, St. Cloud and Mankato.

Another was to provide Trailblazer buses to assist Wright County Public Health and Wright County Community Action in delivering meals throughout Wright County.

“We have five buses out delivering meals,” Vetsch said.

Those meals are loaded at a number of locations throughout the county. In the case of the bus Vetsch and Ling were volunteering, the bus originated from the senior center and dining site in Delano.

Single people were being given five meals. Ten meals were being left for couples.

“We’re giving them enough food for a week at a time,” Vetsch said.

People sign up for the meals through Wright County Community Action. Participation appeared to be growing on a daily basis.

“Monday we delivered 585 meals. We delivered 835 on Tuesday,” Nelson said. “By Wednesday that grew to 1,060 and on Thursday, we were scheduled to deliver 1,285 meals.”

The numbers were growing, Vetsch said, because of word of mouth and marketing by both Wright County Community Action and Wright County Public Health.

Nelson says delivering meals has been a win-win situation for Trailblazer Transit.

“We’ve been able to continue to serve the community while keeping our drivers working,” he said.

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