October 9, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Want a lift? Valerie’s volunteer drivers know how it’s done

South Portland Bus 21 rolled to a stop at the intersection of Ocean and Sawyer streets just before 9 a.m. Tuesday. It’s the closest Valerie Kibala, an African immigrant, can get to Cape Elizabeth via public transport, but it’s still 2.5 long miles to her cherished job as a housekeeper at Cape Memory Care.

click image to enlarge

Valerie Kibala, left, arrives at Cape Memory Care, the nursing home where she works, after receiving a ride from Ann Lilljedahl, one of several volunteers who drive Kibala to work from a South Portland bus stop.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Ann Lilljedahl of Cape Elizabeth drives Portland resident Valerie Kibala from a South Portland bus stop to where she works in Cape Elizabeth. Kibala's long daily commute includes two buses each way to and from her home in Portland. Lilljedahl is one of three volunteer drivers to help Kibala.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

She made it in less than five minutes.

“Thank you, thank you,” Valerie said to Ann Lilljedahl as she climbed out of Ann’s car and headed into work on time.

“I’ll see you tonight,” replied Ann with a smile.

“Thank you, thank you,” Valerie said once again.

Welcome to an American Dream in progress, with an assist from four Maine woman of a certain age who have nothing better to do than to help make it come true.

“Make sure you mention Priscilla!” Ann instructed me more than once during my brief ride-along. “She deserves all of the credit!”

That would be Priscilla Warren, without whom you wouldn’t be reading this and Valerie would be one very tired woman.

It all started one stormy day back in January. Priscilla, on her way from her home in Cape Elizabeth to do a few errands in South Portland’s Mill Creek shopping center, noticed an African woman, her face buried beneath a thick scarf, valiantly leaning into the wind and snow as she trudged along Route 77 toward the center of Cape Elizabeth.

Some people wouldn’t have given it a second thought. Priscilla hit the brakes and made a U-turn.

Catching back up to Valerie, Priscilla lowered the window and hollered through the gale, “Would you like a ride?”

Valerie, 48, had just landed her job at Cape Memory Care, a facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and other memory-related impairments. She’d resigned herself to getting there come hell or high snowdrifts, and now here was this complete stranger pulling over and asking if she wanted a ride?

“Yes, I would,” Valerie replied gratefully.

Forecasters had the storm continuing through the day and into that night. So, as she dropped Valerie at the door, Priscilla asked what time she got out of work.

“Five o’clock,” replied Valerie in her heavily accented English.

“I’ll meet you right here,” replied Priscilla.

So it began. Each morning, as Valerie stepped off Bus 4 at Ocean and Sawyer streets (to make that connection, she first must ride Metro Bus 4 from her home on Douglass Street to downtown Portland), there was Priscilla waiting to drive her the final 2.5-mile leg to work.

And each evening, as Valerie emerged from work exhausted from eight hours of making beds and other housekeeping duties, there again was Priscilla, waiting to ferry her back to the bus stop.

Along the way, Priscilla learned that Valerie has a 9-year-old daughter with her here in Maine ... that she was a social worker in her homeland... that the never-ending violence there forced her to flee in 2009 and leave behind her husband and five other children ... that she’s desperately seeking asylum in the United States so her family can be reunited ...

The weeks and months, not to mention the miles, flew by. Suddenly, it was early August and Priscilla, along with her husband, Mel, were packing for a month-long road trip to visit their daughter and son-in-law in Utah. But what about Valerie?

Enter Ann Lilljedahl, Priscilla’s neighbor in Cape Elizabeth; Suzanne Anderson of South Portland, the mother of Priscilla’s son-in-law; and Carol Keundel, a close friend of Priscilla who also lives in South Portland. The three told Priscilla not to worry – they would divvy up Valerie’s daily commute for the month or so that Priscilla would be gone.

(Continued on page 2)

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