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‘A huge blessing’

Student starts free-ride service

By Tammy Keith

This article was published January 14, 2018 at 12:00 a.m.

Hayden Gadberry of Searcy stands by his car, which he uses to give free rides to people through Vessel Transportation Services, a nonprofit business he started. Gadberry, a senior at Harding University, was inspired to create the business after a class discussion about transportation needs and the poor. He gives rides only to clients of partner organizations, which can be found at www.vesseltransportation.com.

Jessica Beaty of Beebe, a new resident of Jacob’s Place Homeless Mission in Searcy, said free rides from Vessel Transportation Services are “a huge blessing” to her.

“I am displaced because of a [house] fire, and three days before Christmas, the brakes went out on my car,” Beaty said. “So I’ve been looking for a job, and I had all these things I needed to get done, going to Walmart, going to Beebe, a job interview.”

She said Melanie Kiihnl, director of the mission, told her about Vessel Transportation Services in Searcy.

“This really nice man, Hayden, started the company,” Beaty said.

Hayden Gadberry, a Harding University student who turned 22 in December, launched the nonprofit business after a class discussion inspired him.

“I was in my human-diversity class, mostly made up of social-worker students, which is my major, … and we were talking about the importance of transportation and what it means when someone doesn’t have it,” he said.

“Transportation is a foundation, … especially when you’re in a rural area like Searcy and White County,” Gadberry said. “If you don’t have [transportation], you’re going to hit rock bottom real quick, especially if you don’t have a support system that’s reliable.

“They don’t have a means to go to doctor’s appointments or make their parole-officer meetings, and they can’t go to a Social Security office, the unemployment office.”

Vessel Transportation Services partnered with several White County agencies and groups, and rides are given only to locations on a master list — but it’s long — and to clients of those partners.

How does he know they’re clients of the organizations?

“We trust that they tell us the truth,” Gadberry said.

The list of destinations can be found on the business’s website, vesseltransportation.com,

which also includes the short list of places not serviced by rides, which include emergency medical facilities, veterinary appointments and animal-shelter visits.

“We started giving rides in July, but it had been in the works for two, maybe three months before that,” he said. “We’ve given rides to probably, I think, somewhere around 40 people; we’ve given about 500 rides, total.”

Gadberry is the primary driver, using his 2011 Hyundai Sonata.

“The insurance you have to have when giving rides with a ride-share company is very high, expensive insurance,” he said.

An hour’s notice for rides is required. Vessel accepts calls from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and rides are given between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. in White County. The number is (501) 388-5455 and is answered by his dispatcher, volunteer Morgan Spillan.

“Most of our clients are parolees — they are poor,” he said. Gadberry said 60 to 70 percent of his business is rides to the parole office.

Kiihnl said Vessel has been invaluable to her residents, like Beaty. The shelter has three rooms for either families with children or single women.

“He is doing tremendous work; it is really needed,” Kiihnl said. “He’s really started to stop recidivism. Transportation for those in poverty, whether it’s situational or generational, is a huge barrier — it’s not an obstacle; it’s a barrier.”

She said not all, but most, of her clients need the free rides.

“There’s just a lack of public transportation,” Kiihnl said. “When he offers them rides to look for a job, or to the Social Security office … or to school to get their kids enrolled, it’s huge because, otherwise, they’re walking.”

Beaty said she first called Vessel Transportation Services when she and her 8-year-old son needed a ride to Walmart.

“If I didn’t have that, I would have had to walk. Walking from where I’m at to Walmart with my 8-year-old would not have been fun, and it was a misty, rainy day, so it would have been less fun,” Beaty said.

Kiihnl said some of her clients pay $25 to $50 a week in gas money to someone for transportation, and they can’t afford it.

“He is providing a vital, critical service … because a lot of those who have been in prison struggle financially,” she said, and have debts and bills to pay. “They’re starting over from scratch, trying to find jobs, minimum-wage jobs.”

Kiihnl said it’s worse if they have children and they’re trying to pay rent on an $8.50-an-hour job.

“So how are you going to make a car payment? Or maybe they can make the car payment, but they can’t pay the sales tax,” she said.

Beaty said she has never in her life had to be without a vehicle, “and it is no fun at all to depend on other people.”

“I feel very fortunate that he helped me. He’s a college student, but he still makes time to help other people.”

After Gadberry decided to create the transportation service, he launched a GoFundMe page. Mostly, friends and family donated to the page, he said.

“We’ve had a lot of donations; we’ve raised quite a bit. It’s expensive because we pay insurance; we pay gas,” he said. Sometimes I pay gas out of my own pocket; sometimes I don’t.”

On the website is the organization’s mission statement: “Creating opportunities for self-sustaining lifestyles with free transportation.”

The website also states that Vessel will strive “to show the love of Christ through free transportation, despite religious belief, sex, ethnicity, color or creed.”

“Really, we don’t try to preach the Gospel, and it’s not like we’re inviting anybody to Bible studies or anything like that, but I myself am a Christian,” Gadberry said. “I would say it’s a Christian company, but it’s not like we’re pushing church or the Gospel or anything; we’re just showing love. I have talked to a lot of clients about religion, but it’s usually not me who brings it up.

“It was a God thing for sure, to me. It’s something I feel called by God to do. This was never a dream of mine, per se, nothing I started out to do, but it’s an opportunity that presented itself.”

Gadberry said he wants to expand the number of insured cars, and he needs more volunteer drivers. He had five Harding University students to help, but they went on Christmas break, and they are seniors and will graduate soon.

“I’d love to be able to get to the point that I can pay my drivers,” he said. That will require hiring an attorney, he said, to get a different designation of the 501(c)(3) status.

“That’s a long way away,” he said. “There’s a link on our website where people can donate.”

Gadberry said he is one of four transportation services in White County, but the only one that offers free rides specifically to clients of particular partner organizations.

“We’ve had a lot of organizations reach out to us and ask us to work with them; we just don’t have the time or resources to do so,” he said.

But that’s his goal. He’s come this far, and he doesn’t plan to stop now.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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