Bonnie Silk’s Road Led to Neighbor to Neighbor

When Bonnie Silk’s beloved husband Tom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, she suddenly found herself literally in the driver’s seat.

“He was the driver – always,” Silk said. “I became the driver. It hit me how dependent he was on me. He was so independent, and now, all of a sudden, I was the one who had to take him where he needed to go.”

Doctors’ appointments. Grocery shopping. Every time they left the house for six years until Tom passed away on Thanksgiving in 2018, Bonnie was gladly behind the wheel, eager to support her husband of 37 years.

After months mourning her loss, the road led her to Neighbor to Neighbor, a nonprofit with a mission to provide connections for homebound adults through transportation and companionship. Now, she’s driving for other seniors just like she did for Tom.

“I do it in his honor,” said Silk, 73. “It’s filled a very big void in my life, and I’m happy to do it in his honor.”

‘There is a huge need’

When Silk went searching for volunteer opportunities to help her find purpose after Tom’s passing, she stumbled on Neighbor to Neighbor through a random internet search.

She quickly felt a connection to the nonprofit’s mission and was eager to again take the wheel for those who can no longer do it themselves. After experiencing first-hand her husband’s dependence on her, she brought an understanding of the clients’ needs and knew the importance of the transportation service.

Mary Lou Brown, a local social worker, created Neighbor to Neighbor (N2N) in 2005 to meet the needs of elderly and chronically ill people, offering rides, helping with Medicaid application assistance and more. By 2018, N2N was providing more than 700 rides a month thanks to an army of dedicated volunteers like Silk who must pass N2N’s strict screening process. The need was so great, N2N expanded to Georgetown County in 2010 and Brunswick County in 2019.

Seniors turn to N2N for rides to their doctors’ appointments, the grocery store, bank, barbershop or hair salon and more.

Silk and other volunteers regularly receive a list of the needed rides and who needs them. Volunteers can select the rides that work with their schedule and location, a flexibility Silk finds especially beneficial. Many become the regular driver for specific clients.

While rides are the primary focus, N2N strives to meet other needs. Its pantry program delivers nutritious food, supplies and toiletries. Volunteers also support homebound seniors with regular phone calls to check in and chat, as well as companion visits in their homes to ease loneliness and isolation.

“They are not able to drive to get any services. There’s a lot of different things they need,” Silk said. “When you can’t drive, that really cuts you off. There is a huge need.”

More than a ride

After providing the transportation for her husband for six years, Silk felt like serving as a volunteer driver for N2N was meant to be.

While she was carrying on Tom’s legacy of kindness and giving to others by volunteering, she was also finding a new purpose.

“Just knowing I was getting out of the house for the first time and doing something for somebody else was a great thing,” said Silk, a New York native who moved to Longs in 2017.

Since she started volunteering in April 2019, Silk has provided more than 430 rides to Neighbor to Neighbor clients and an untrackable number of smiles and laughs along the way.

Silk and the other volunteer drivers offer more than just crucial transportation. They provide much-needed companionship through a listening ear and a caring heart.

Clients quickly become friends. Even on first meeting, Silk is often greeted with a hug from the grateful senior when she arrives to pick them up.

After they get settled in Silk’s Honda CR-V, they hit the road, chatting along the way until they reach their destination. It’s a connection she values as much as her clients do.

“You hear about their families, their health issues – it’s just a nice conversation,” Silk said. “I try to keep it light so we laugh.”

During her clients’ appointments, Silk doesn’t leave the parking lot. She’s always prepared with a book to pass the time sitting in her vehicle – whether the appointment lasts 30 minutes or three hours. Often, clients are apologetic if the appointment lasts longer than expected, but Silk reassures them it’s OK, reminding them it’s beyond their control.

“I want to be there when they are ready to go home,” she said.

Feeling grateful

The client isn’t the only one in the vehicle who is grateful.

Providing rides brings joy to Silk, a reassuring feeling that she’s making a difference while honoring her late husband.

“They are so grateful but they don’t realize what they give me,” Silk said. “It really is a purpose. I get my rewards from taking them.”

Though she’s never considered herself outgoing, Silk finds herself easily bonding with her clients during the rides. She picks up wisdom, discovers new places and is inspired by her passengers.

One client in her 90s – always dressed impeccably, not a hair out of place – inspired Silk through her friendly, spunky personality.

“She would greet everybody,” Silk said. “What an example for me to see how to treat other people. It was so heartwarming and touching. It just warms my heart.”

With the take-off of more delivery services for food and groceries during the COVID-19 pandemic, seniors now have more options to fulfill their basic needs without having to rely on a ride to get them. But the need for rides – and the companionship that comes with them – is still growing as the population ages.

Even independent adults, like her husband Tom, could end up needing the reliable transportation from a trusted individual as their bodies age.

“Someday that might be me needing that ride,” Silk said. “It’s a great comfort to know there is an organization that cares and provides this service.”

She can’t help but think of Tom, with every mile driven in honor of him, and his giving spirit, positive attitude and sense of humor.

“He gave of himself,” she said, adding that he was a volunteer firefighter and volunteered at a hospital repairing wheelchairs. “He just enjoyed life. He didn’t want anything, need anything. He just got pleasure in living. I’m so thankful for the years we had together.”

While no one can replace her Tom, every N2N client is helping fill the loneliness that his passing left. She focuses on her clients and what she can do for them to improve their quality of life.

“They get attached to you, and you get attached to them. I need that personal connection with somebody,” Silk said. “I found the perfect thing for me, and want it for others, too.”

Want to volunteer for Neighbor to Neighbor? Go to N2Ncarolinas.org to complete an application.