A Redwood Transit Bus rolls into HSU’s library circle. Photo by David Lawlor.
U.S. Navy veteran John Gengenbach arrived in Eureka two years ago this month with his remaining possessions packed in the Chevrolet Tahoe that he slept in at night.
This was not how he planned to come to the West Coast.
The now 58-year-old Gengenbach and his longtime partner Lynn Brascugli-Damberg had been readying for retirement. They were going to sell their home and the antique shop they operated in Minnesota, move to California, and open a bed and breakfast on the Smith River.
All that changed when she was diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. Over the course of her illness, they lost their house and their business. Then, Gengenbach lost her.
The only silver lining, Gengenbach said, was his son had graduated from high school and was heading off to his freshman year in college.
“I packed everything up and just moved to California, because that was the plan anyway,” he said.
He scattered her ashes along the way, eventually bringing them to the Pacific Ocean.
Gengenbach,who said he spent time in the Mediterranean while serving on an aircraft carrier “that no longer exists,” speaks stoically about finding his way to the North Coast Veterans Resource Center in Eureka, which he credits with helping him get back on his feet.
While going through the center’s transitional housing program, Gengenbach came up with an idea to remove at least one obstacle for veterans on the path to self-reliance.
Then, he decided to do something about it.
Gengenbach went to the Humboldt Transit Authority in April with a simple question: Couldn’t something be done to help veterans who had limited transportation options?
The answer, it turns out, was yes.
Just a few months after the authority’s board asked HTA General Manager Greg Pratt to look for grants in response to Gengenbach’s request, nearly $12,000 in funding has come in through a Caltrans program.
“It just worked out as far as timing goes,” Pratt said. “There are different grants that come at different times of the year, and that one fell just right.”
The Caltrans Low Carbon Transit Operations Program aims to reduce emissions by encouraging public transit use with an emphasis on serving disadvantage communities.
The grant will fund 600 $20 passes for veterans over two years, something Brad Gekler, outreach coordinator and case manager at the nonprofit veterans resource center, said will be “very beneficial” for local vets.
Gekler estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the veterans who use the center’s four programs, which include a 36-bed facility where veterans can stay for up to two years while they save money to move into a place of their own, depend on public transit.
The passes can be used on any of the HTA’s bus system lines from Willow Creek to Southern Humboldt and all points in-between.
“We were fortunate to get this far, and now just need to get the bus passes into the hands of those who need them,” Gengenbach said.
For veterans without cars, he explained, the passes will mean not having to depend on others for a ride to get around town, attend doctor appointments or go to job interviews.
“We’re kind of crazy that way,” he said. “We want to feel that we are pulling our own weight.”
While details on how the passes will be distributed are still being worked out, Pratt said he hopes to have things up and running by Sept. 1.
Gengenbach said he would eventually like to see the pilot program extended statewide.
“I was very pleased with their open mindedness,” Gengenbach said of Pratt and the HTA board. “Once we see how this program works out, maybe we can blow it into something bigger. Start small, work big, you know.”