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OATS Inc. has been a hub for transportation in Springfield for decades. With over 100 employees in the Springfield area, the 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation is designed to get the public where they need to go, specifically when they cannot do so themselves.
“We provide specialized transportation for thousands of Missourians, including the rural general public, senior citizens and people with disabilities,” says Jeff Robinson, a regional director, who oversees some 17 counties and 75 drivers in southwest Missouri. “It takes a full team to make our organization a success.”
OATS stands for Operating Above The Standard, and the 1971-founded organization does business as OATS Transit. It began after a group of Missourians returned from a White House Conference on Aging, where transportation was cited as a hurdle for many people to a functional life. They knew there was a need for transportation in their communities.
Carried by a $25.8 million annual operating budget, the transportation services are funded by Federal Transit Administration grants, various contracting agencies and individual donations. Working with drivers in 87 Missouri counties, OATS provides over 4,500 trips per business day statewide. In southwest Missouri, the work amounts to 800-1,100 rides daily.
“Our riders rely on us to get them to work, to the doctor and hospitals, to the grocery store or food pantry, or to get hot food at the senior center. Many are living on fixed incomes, so this transportation is critical and most of them have no other means of transportation,” says Robinson. “We are proud of our mission of enhancing quality of life by providing safe, caring and reliable transportation services.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, OATS averaged nearly 5,500 trips each day across the state. Officials say they’re working to get back to that level, but the work has been hampered by a driver shortage that’s still in recovery.
In late 2021, OATS officials told the Columbia Missourian the organization was about 145 bus drivers short to meet the demands statewide. Pre-pandemic, OATS employed over 750 employees statewide, with three-quarters of them being drivers. Officials say the shortage locally was roughly 20 employees due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Governed by a 14-member board of directors, OATS is based in Columbia, with a regional office in northeast Springfield among the eight regions that make up OATS Transit.
Robinson says OATS contracts with agencies through the developmental disability tax boards and senior citizens services’ tax funds in multiple counties.
“Service to many of our region’s seniors and disabled wouldn’t be possible without their loyal and long-term support,” he says.
According to the frequently asked questions page at OATSTransit.org, the service runs Monday through Friday, with some routes operating on weekends and after hours, depending on the county. Some routes have set fares, the FAQ says, while others are donation based because they’re covered by contract agencies, such as the Area Agencies on Aging.
In Greene County, for instance, OATS suggests rider contributions, ranging from $1 in town to $5 for longer distances crossing multiple county lines.
Officials say all the buses meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and service animals – except for therapy, comfort or emotional support animals – are permitted with riders, according to company materials. The transportation services do not run on most federal holidays.
The long haul
The organization recently celebrated the tenure of Executive Director Dorothy Yeager. She started as a communication assistant, and 35 years later, Yeager is one of the longest-serving employees and has led the company since 2012, says Rhonda Proctor, a marketing and training specialist with OATS who has worked closely with Yeager in Columbia.
“OATS Transit has grown to be one of the largest and most unique systems of its kind in the country. The company has won numerous state and national awards throughout its 51 years in business,” says Proctor.
Robinson points to the numbers as evidence for its recognition.
“OATS Transit provided 956,000 trips last year and covered more than 11.2 million miles statewide. We have 565 employees and are proud that more than 18% of them are veterans,” says Robinson.
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