Updated: May 1
By Elsie Boskamp
Alma Tovar spends her days driving Latino men, women and children, who can’t drive themselves, to doctor appointments. She takes people to pediatric checkups, cancer treatments, physical therapy, obstetricians and gynecologists, and, when necessary, the emergency room.
Earlier this month she took a worried young mom and her 5-week-old baby girl, who had a fever and a rash, to a pediatrician in Southampton. The newborn was battling disseminated Lyme disease—and her doctor, Harriet Hellman, knew she needed to get to Stony Brook University Hospital, where they have a team of pediatric infectious disease specialists, as soon as possible.
That’s where Ms. Tovar stepped in.
“An ambulance was not needed. However, no time should have been wasted,” said Dr. Hellman, who asked Ms. Tovar to take the infant and her mom, whose names were withheld for privacy reasons, to the hospital, where they stayed for two weeks.
Ms. Tovar said she immediately understood the urgency of the situation and rearranged her schedule for the rest of the day.
“I looked the doctor right in the eye, and I said to myself: ‘If the doctor is asking you, it’s because the baby is going to be okay with you driving her,’” Ms. Tovar said on Monday.
“I have never seen an infant that young with Lyme disease in 46 years,” said Dr. Hellman. “The distance from my office in Southampton to Stony Brook University Hospital, without transportation assistance, would have delayed her care by days.
“I owe Alma a debt of gratitude … she should know that she unequivocally saved a life.”
For Ms. Tovar, it was just another day at work.
The Southampton resident has been driving community members, who would otherwise be forced to walk or take public transportation, to doctors’ offices from Riverhead to Montauk since February, when she started working for Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island, or OLA, a nonprofit agency focused on arts, education and advocacy work on the East End for both Latino populations and the community at large.
The free transportation service, which is now managed by Ms. Tovar, began last fall when Minerva Perez, the executive director of OLA, realized that Suffolk County Transit cut back on the South Fork’s buses, eliminating the Noyac Road route entirely.
Limited bus service coupled with a “tremendous fear,” stemming from an increase in both documented and undocumented Hispanic individuals being arrested for non-violent offenses, like driving without a license, and being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, leaves little options for people who have no other means of transportation, Ms. Perez noted.
“What do they do if they know that by driving, they’re going to be risking their lives or their family’s lives? The geographics are pretty difficult to navigate. So what’s the alternative if Suffolk County is cutting bus lines?” she said. “If people can’t get to and from doctors appointments, and to and from jobs, with regularity, something is wrong. Our public bus transportation is absolutely a shame. It’s a disgrace and it doesn’t let people have access to some of the most important things in their lives—it violates basic human rights.”
Ms. Tovar is able to help up to 15 people each week. Come September, she said she hopes to increase the service, as she will begin working four days a week—thanks to a $20,000 donation from the Southampton Bath and Tennis Foundation—instead of the two days a week she currently works.
Although Ms. Perez said that the transportation service is a temporary measure to alleviate some of the growing transportation needs and immigration fears, the service will likely continue to be offered until the town or the county upgrades the bus system or offers an alternative, affordable and reliable form of transportation.
The long-term goal is to reduce fears by educating law enforcement officials on how best to handle situations involving immigrants and to implement dependable bus routes that make more stops and operate for longer hours. Ms. Perez is already working with Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming to change the bus service in East Hampton Town, where it takes up to three hours to travel by bus from Springs to East Hampton, which takes less than 20 minutes via car.
“Anyone can say that we are just transportation people, but, in reality, we are creating a place of trust and brotherhood,” Ms. Tovar said.