A Conversation With Minerva Perez

Minerva Perez
Minerva Perez

By Christine Sampson

Elected officials and advocacy organizations alike have identified the lack of a robust public transportation system on the South Fork as a major problem for many people. Organización Latino-Americana of Eastern Long Island (OLA) is taking on this problem this winter with a pilot program to provide emergency transportation for people who do not qualify for rides through Suffolk County or East Hampton or Southampton towns. OLA executive director Minerva Perez explains the program’s details and how it fits into the organization’s larger mission.

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I understand the transportation program will run between mid-January and April. Can you tell us more about its goals and logistics?

Because we have one vehicle, and at this moment we only have funding for a part time driver, we will have three full days to offer East Hampton and Southampton residents. We’re going to start with doctors’ offices first — pediatricians. I learned that children were not being brought as regularly as they should be because of transportation being a problem. For instance, in Springs it could take three hours to get to the Pantigo Road clinic in East Hampton by bus. Once I heard that I thought, ‘This is crazy and we need to do something immediately.’ Because of the cold, and the dangers and fears of driving without a license, people are isolated from things they need to do, whether it’s going to doctors, doing grocery store runs or getting to a food pantry. It is going to have to be worked out by the most severe need and by who is not eligible for anything else, like East Hampton or Southampton town transportation or Suffolk County Accessible Transportation. This is not only for Latino community members; we’re going to help all community members as well. We’ll hire someone with a squeaky clean driver’s license, and heavily insure the van and the driver.

The second piece that we want to gain is we hope to gather more information. It might be a small sliver of what is there, but who are some of the folks that aren’t being served, what are some of the stories? When the end of the winter comes, we’ll be able to take this information and share it in a positive way with the county. We might not wait until April. If there is critical data that we gain from this we’ll be sharing it with the towns as soon as possible.

What made this program possible?

A couple of things. I had been putting feelers out to a couple of funders who have been very supportive in the past, and at the same time I got a call out of the blue from some folks who had heard me present who wanted to donate a minivan. It came together. And the board of OLA was supportive. None of this would happen without their support. Even though OLA is an equal mix of arts, education and advocacy, there are certain things we cannot turn away from. We are absolutely thrilled to help out however we can.

Why is a program like this is needed on the South Fork?

It’s very isolated and many people don’t realize this. Bus transportation is a necessity and it’s missing in a huge degree out here. Nothing could amplify it more than having this winter that we’re having, coupled with the fact that there are many people afraid to drive because they don’t have licenses. It affects the most vulnerable. That’s what we can’t allow to happen. Another piece of it is employment and the workforce – we talk with employers and the strains that they have. We should have buses that meet the needs of people in this community. They do not by a long shot.

How does this fit into OLA’s overall philosophy?

Advocacy for 2017 has sort of taken another sort of life because of the need. We do a lot of advocacy. We can say, ‘Wow, this represents a bit of a gap in this particular service that our county or town should have,’ so we’re going to take those cases and say what are we going to learn and what are we going to present to our municipalities or do some public education. Ultimately, our advocacy is at the policy level but you don’t get there by talking policy first. A lot of our problem is that the leadership starts from the top down, as opposed to starting by talking to the people who are experiencing the problems and seeing where it’s broken. OLA being able to take the information from the ground and being able to bring it all the way up to the policy makers and legislators is the strategy. Ultimately we are advocating for the betterment of all people on the East End, and a lot of those people happen to be Latino right now.

To learn more about OLA’s emergency transportation program, call OLA at (631) 899-3441 or visit facebook.com/OLA6318993441.