Driving the mission

Volunteer drivers answer call to get St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic where it needs to go

By Bill Brewer

There are a variety of ministries in which lay Catholics serve the Church.

But when Mary Serbin and Randy Perrault answered the call, God had a slightly different path in mind for them. It’s a route marked by Interstates 40 and 75 and byways leading to rural destinations like Crab Orchard, Washburn, Decatur, and Helenwood.

Mary Serbin runs through the checklist of truck elements she and fellow St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic volunteer driver Randy Perrault need to know to pass their commercial driver license exam.

Mrs. Serbin and Mr. Perrault are now truck drivers for the Lord, extending the healing ministry of Jesus Christ to East Tennessee.

To be specific, they are two of the newest drivers for the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, which relies on specially trained and licensed operators to get the 40-foot-long, diesel doctor’s office on eight wheels and three axles to the sites it serves.

The mobile medical clinic is a Diocese of Knoxville ministry that is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. It provides free health care for people in East Tennessee, mainly in rural areas, who are without health insurance. Many, if not most, of the clinic’s patients are not Catholic.

The mobile clinic is staffed by a physician who serves as medical director, an executive director who manages the ministry, and a few employees who take care of the daily clinic needs. But the ones who really make the clinic go are the team of volunteers who staff the clinic at each of the eight locations served.

Martin Vargas, executive director of the clinic, several months ago identified drivers as a crucial need, without whom the clinic would be unable to leave its garage. Mr. Vargas and Brianna Vinyard, SMLC volunteer coordinator, set out to recruit drivers and get them enrolled in a program where they could earn a commercial driver license (CDL), which is required to operate the large van.

Covering the cost of driver training has emerged as a critically needed expense for the nonprofit ministry. The state of Tennessee recently increased its requirements for a CDL, which makes a test-preparation class necessary for many drivers. Such classes can cost as much as $6,000 per person.

“In March, we had zero drivers. Three of our volunteer drivers were out for health reasons, and the clinic was left without a licensed driver,” Mr. Vargas said. “We had to hire temporary professional drivers at $37 an hour. We had to use them three times.”

Ms. Vinyard noted that it’s expensive to cover the cost of driver training and obtaining a CDL for volunteers, but the cost is worth it. Also, the Tennessee College of Applied Technology, which offers the training program, is giving St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic a group discount for its classes.

A new CDL driver-training class began this month, and another one is planned for next spring, Mr. Vargas said.

Mr. Vargas is grateful to Mrs. Serbin and Mr. Perrault for answering God’s call to volunteer.

“We go nowhere without our drivers,” he said.

Mrs. Serbin shows instructor Daniel Longmire the key parts of a diesel truck engine as part of her truck-driver training.

Mrs. Serbin is thankful the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic needed big-rig drivers.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done with my life. I get to drive a big truck and serve God by providing medical care to those who need it,” the volunteer said.

And that is saying quite a bit, since she is married with grown children, has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing, and has earned certification and licensing as a nurse practitioner.

She explained that as she was attending daily Mass in April at St. Patrick Church in Morristown, she felt a call to volunteer her nursing skills. She told herself that if the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic announced a need for volunteers in the church bulletin, she would respond.

“There wasn’t just an ad for a provider position or a volunteer, it was for the CDL. That was not on my radar. I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, Lord. Really? You want me to drive a big rig?’ I called up Bri Vinyard, and here I am,” she said.

Mr. Perrault’s route to St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic is similar. The Marine veteran who served in Central America and Operation Desert Storm and went on to work for the Veterans Administration is now semi-retired. He also read about St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic’s need for volunteer drivers in the church bulletin.

“I looked around the church and thought, ‘Man, I don’t know where they’re going to draw this population from because it’s during the week, which eliminates anyone who has a 9-to-5 job.’

“But you know what, I believe that everybody should give back to the community in some way, shape, or form. So, I said, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ I umpire college softball for three months of the year. The other nine months I have an open schedule. So, I decided this is another way I can give back. I’m also a volunteer fireman, so that gives back to my direct community, and this gives back to my spiritual community,” he said.

Mrs. Serbin and Mr. Perrault successfully completed requirements for a Tennessee Class B commercial driver license in June and began driving the Legacy Clinic van in August. The drivers each had four trips under their belt by early September.

“It’s going well. It’s just getting comfortable with the machine. It becomes exponentially easier every time you get behind the wheel,” Mr. Perrault said.

The volunteer drivers can attest that climbing into the cab of a large truck and transporting hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment and personnel isn’t as easy as jumping in a car and heading out on the highway.

“There’s a lot to it, trying to figure out the turning radius and stopping distance all along the way,” Mr. Perrault shared, pointing out that the medical van, like all big trucks, is unable to stop or turn on a dime.

“The blind spots are larger, and people pass on all sides of a truck,” Mrs. Serbin added, noting that cars will even pass large trucks on the shoulder of the road and will cut off trucks as they closely pass.

As they navigate roads crisscrossing the Diocese of Knoxville, they also are navigating the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic itself, learning how it operates at each stop.

The volunteer work of Mr. Perrault and Mrs. Serbin doesn’t end with driving the mobile van. Mr. Perrault has been performing administrative duties once the clinic is on site and hosting patients.

And Mrs. Serbin, as a nurse practitioner, is assisting medical director Sister Mary Lisa Renfer, RSM, who treats patients as the clinic physician. Mrs. Serbin’s volunteer medical duties begin after she drives the clinic to its destination and helps set it up to receive patients.

Treating patients is just as demanding as driving the clinic that treats them.

“These are very challenging patients, and you have to be very creative and resourceful with their medical care,” she said. “I embrace the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Christ for these patients.”

When she is driving the van, the St. Patrick parishioner leaves Morristown at 6:45 a.m. to get to the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic storage facility in West Knoxville an hour away, where she will perform a pre-trip inspection of the van and help load it with supplies before departing.

“It’s a 12-hour day, but it’s so worth it,” she said.

The clinic operates at remote locations twice a week, alternating among Crab Orchard, Rutledge, Washburn, Helenwood, Decatur, Athens, Gatlinburg, and Knoxville.

Mr. Perrault and Mrs. Serbin ask questions in preparation for their driving test to receive their commercial driver license.

Mr. Perrault is a parishioner at St. Mary in Johnson City. And while his commute is longer, he said he already had a camper about an hour outside of Knoxville where he stays on the nights before he drives the van to cut down on his commute.

Both drivers said the CDL class they took at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology in Knoxville prepared them well for their new roles. So well, in fact, that each passed the Tennessee commercial driver license exam on the first try, answering at least 80 percent of the questions correctly.

As part of their training, they learned to drive 18-wheel tractor-trailers in city traffic and on the interstate. However, learning to drive an 18-wheeler isn’t a requirement for the Class B CDL the mobile medical clinic requires.

“I have to admit, driving a tractor-trailer was kind of a bucket-list item for me, and I got to check it off,” Mr. Perrault said. “I took it around the city. I took it around turns. I took it on the interstate. To me, that was worth the whole price of admission right there.”

“It wasn’t on my bucket list, but I’m glad it fell onto my bucket list,” Mrs. Serbin said. “It was a blast.”

Mrs. Serbin’s first trip driving the mobile medical clinic was to Crab Orchard in Cumberland County, requiring her to navigate Interstate 40. Mr. Perrault’s first trip was to Gatlinburg, where he guided the van through Sevier County’s dense summertime traffic and the tourist town’s narrow roads.

Despite the challenge of learning about big trucks from front to back and then driving them before having to pass an equally challenging driver’s exam, the two volunteers said if they can get their commercial driver license, anyone can.

“Anybody can do it, as long as you can see over the dash,” Mr. Perrault said.

“And as long as you don’t have any serious violations on your driving record,” Mrs. Serbin added.

They admitted to making a few junior missteps on their journey to becoming seasoned truckers. Their shared miscues involve fueling up the van.

Mr. Perrault said it’s customary for the driver to fill up the van after every trip. After his maiden voyage, he didn’t realize the van had two fuel tanks, one on the driver’s side and one on the passenger side. And while he only filled up one side, Mrs. Serbin unexpectedly had to fill up the other tank before the next trip, something they both laugh about now.

Mrs. Serbin, who is 5 feet, 4 inches tall with a slight build, said after pulling up beside a diesel fuel pump to refuel, she was unable to loosen the fuel cap, which was closed too tight (which she attributed to a universal guy thing). She had to ask a trucker next to her filling up his 18-wheeler to remove the cap.

The volunteers inspect the brakes, tires, and suspension of the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic.

As all that is new becomes routine, Mr. Perrault and Mrs. Serbin agree that St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic has been warm and hospitable to them.

“They do a great job of making the drivers feel welcome and are appreciative of the skills needed to drive a 40-foot van that weighs more than 26,000 pounds,” Mr. Perrault said.

“It’s a really sweet community,” Mrs. Serbin added. “I just love it. I encourage anyone thinking about doing it to just quit thinking and do it.”

Mr. Vargas hopes to have about 15 volunteer drivers available to the clinic who would be split between Monday-Thursday shifts to the clinic sites and Friday-Sunday shifts for the mobile clinic to be driven to churches, organizations, and events for ministry awareness and for routine maintenance.

St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic is asking the volunteers to drive a minimum of three times a month, according to Ms. Vinyard.

“We are so grateful for our driver volunteers. They make such a difference in our ministry,” Mr. Vargas said. “We are so grateful they have answered the call.”

And as Mrs. Serbin, Mr. Perrault, and other SMLC volunteer drivers climb into the cab and take to the highways, Mrs. Serbin and Mr. Perrault have a newfound respect for the truckers with whom they will be sharing the road and now see them in a special light.

“Truckers are angels of the highway,” she said.

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