By Anton Ahrens, Topeka Capial-Journal

As we approach what many have called “the most important election in our nation’s history,” I wonder what we value as citizens of this great and beautiful country.

Specifically, should we act as individuals working for our benefit alone or should we act as a community working to benefit all? I hope we work to improve life for those in our community who are working multiple jobs just to get by, those who don’t have health insurance but still need medical attention, and those who just feel forgotten. When they benefit, we all benefit. But what can we do?

Start small. Work to transform our local landscape. I do this by working with 28 faith groups across Shawnee County in Topeka JUMP. JUMP is a nondenominational, nonpartisan, nonprofit working in Shawnee County to bring attention to injustice and suggesting solutions that will make the county a more just place to live, work and raise a family.

One example of JUMP’s work is workforce transportation. In 2017, we urged the Topeka Metro director, to find a way to get Topekans transportation to living wage jobs in south Topeka where there was no bus service.

The director created a program, SOTO, which provided a $5 door-to-door ride to work (or home) with Capital City taxi doing the driving, any time, 24/7. Since December of 2017, SOTO and NETO, the northeast analog, have provided more than 37,000 rides, with about 25% of those rides coming between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. The $5 passenger cost is supplemented by a $10-15 payment split between economic development funding through Go Topeka and the company (e.g., Target, Home Depot, Mars, Resers).

Companies often say it’s hard to find and keep good, reliable employees, so paying their monthly invoices makes sense. But two companies, Home Depot and Mars, stopped paying their invoices in 2019, dropping out of the program.

Now, let’s be clear. Many companies, like Target and Frito Lay, have faithfully paid their monthly SOTO invoice. For years, JUMP has implored Go Topeka to write contracts with the companies to formalize this business agreement. Go Topeka has not made contracts.

When Home Depot and Mars dropped out, people lost their ride to work — 300 rides per month were gone. These two companies that are making millions of dollars on their products and getting hundreds of thousands of our tax dollars as incentives are unwilling to pay to get their employees to work?

Since transportation needs still exist, JUMP has secured 2021 funding through Go Topeka (JEDO oversees the GoTopeka budget). I have hope because JEDO members unanimously passed 2021 funding with Shawnee County Commissioner Kevin Cook and City Councilmen Mike Padilla and Tony Emerson taking the lead by constantly supporting workforce transportation in the county.

I have hope for our city/county even in this “it’s all about me” moment in our history. That’s because I know that, working together, we are inexorably moving towards living out the creed that all people are created equal and all deserve justice.

Anton Ahrens, who is now retired, taught chemistry at Topeka High for 32 years and at Highland Park for two years. He has participated in JUMP since 2012.

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