Tell us a little bit about Special Needs Chicago:
Special Needs Chicago provides individuals with physical and / or cognitive challenges the freedom to enjoy safe, reliable, comfortable, and courteous transportation throughout Chicago and its suburbs. We offer non-emergency transit for seniors and people with disabilities in wheelchair-accessible vehicles 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We also offer long distance and out-of-state transports upon request. We can easily coordinate regularly scheduled rides, group outings, or really any kind of transportation for medical, business, or personal reasons. As our niche is wheelchair accessible transport, we have ADA minivans, full-size vans and mini-buses.
Our drivers — roughly 20 or so in our immediate Chicago area — are all independent contractors, and the majority of them are career professionals who have been working with us to provide services for this community for over 20 years. We have maintained relationships with several of them since our launch in 2012, and they are like family at this point. We have actually never had to look for drivers, they are all brought in and vouched for by our existing team.
What do you wish more people knew about the business?
We are highly specialized in our services and expertise, making us a great ally for NEMT-related affiliate work. We are also in the midst of opening 3 franchise locations: one each in Ann Arbor / Detroit, Arlington / DFW, and Denver. The franchise outposts will operate as Tootl Transport (since the original name doesn’t really work outside of Chicago) and will allow us to not only bring our outstanding service to communities who will benefit in these cities, but we can now also offer even more cooperate support for our fellow operators in those areas.
This expansion is a first for us, and we couldn’t be more excited to be working with our new franchise employees to create an even bigger footprint for our particular brand of professional, reliable, accessible transportation. .
How did you, personally, end up in the transportation industry?
After over a decade of coordinating wheelchair accessible transportation for scores of corporate clients, non-profits, healthcare organizations, social workers, insurance companies, retirement facilities, and beyond, I couldn’t ignore the service discrepancies I continued to witness and experience firsthand any longer. I became adamant about the need to provide better service and commit to higher standards for the quality of customer care, so I launched my own NEMT transportation business — Special Needs Chicago — in 2012. My husband Tom has a background in hospitality, and joined me for the venture. We’ve grown our vision and our company together ever since.
What has been your experience as an ILLBA member?
The ILLBA is a phenomenal organization, with great networking opportunities that have really helped us grow an active network of collaborative relationships with fellow operator members who farm out to us for their NEMT transportation needs. The learning and camaraderie that is available through the ILLBA’s various events and educational opportunities has also always been important to us — everyone should attend the in-person events whenever they can. We certainly try to.
We’re also recommending that our franchises join their own local trade associations in their respective locations, based predominantly on what an excellent experience we’ve had as members of the ILLBA.
How are you spending your time outside of the business?
Our two children have officially reached adulthood! If you’re a parent you understand what a milestone this feels like. And this is actually kind of business-related, because in many ways they’ve grown up in, around, and alongside Special Needs Chicago. Their graduation into the next chapter(s) of their lives, happening simultaneously with the expansion of the business, all feels very poignant right now.
We also love our RV, and since I’m able to work remotely, we’ve gone on months-long cross country adventures every summer for the past 8 years as a family — a different route each time. Maybe that’s about to change, too? Either way, you absolutely can’t beat those memories.
Any predictions, hopes, or ambitions for the future of our industry?
I’ve been watching the growth of transportation-related AI — self-driving vehicles, etc. — and feeling both curious and wary, but also grateful to be operating in a niche that is, and will always remain, very human-oriented. You can’t automate NEMT transportation, you can’t replace the human element with a computer, and that is why I love this work. Door-through-door wheelchair rides, a professional driver who is versed in properly securing and transporting people with physical and mental challenges — these are not things that will work with a robot or a driverless car. Would you send your parent with dementia, or your child who uses a wheelchair, in a vehicle that has no trained chaperone? The person-to-person service element that is inherent to what we do is a huge part of what makes it special. It’s what I’m passionate about, and it feels good to believe that this is something we can continue offering well into the future.