Dennis Young’s rise and shine often starts before the crack of dawn. Three days a week, the Grand Rapids resident heads out the door at 4:25 a.m. so he can make his 5 a.m. dialysis appointment at DaVita Kidney Care in Walker. It’s vital that he arrives at his appointment on time.
“The process (dialysis) takes 3 ½ hours,” says Young. “Then there’s somebody else literally waiting for my chair (when I'm done).”
His early rise is made easier by the wheelchair-accessible transportation service that takes him to dialysis, Ride YourWay
Young's situation illustrates the crucial need for people with disabilities to find accessible transportation, says Bill Holmes, Associate Director of Disability Advocates of Kent County.
“People with disabilities so many times have few options for transportation. We are grateful that Ride YourWay is a reliable option for them," Holmes says.
Rooted in personal experience
Ride YourWay founder and CEO Tom Sikkema says the idea to launch a non-emergency transportation company came to him when he was at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital battling a rare type of brain cancer, CNS Germinoma, at age 17.
Sikkema remembers the day he was declared cancer-free: Nov. 20, 2013. The care he received at the hospital inspired him to become a pediatric registered nurse and, before that, a hematology/oncology nursing technician. He eventually worked on the same hospital floor where he received treatment for his cancer.
“All the nurses I had were incredible, so I decided to dedicate my life to nursing,” says Sikkema.
But it was while he was still a patient receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments to rid him of his golf ball-size tumor, Sikkema had an epiphany. It slowly grew into a business idea while he was in college and then as a registered nurse.
“I was sitting in the ICU looking at various accessories for a wheelchair when I was inpatient,” recalls Sikkema. “That’s when the whole mobility community was revealed to me and, going to nursing school, I saw that mobility transportation was a huge barrier. There’s not a lot of wheelchair-accessible transportation here in town. I then looked at the quality of transportation, and there were no providers that met the expectations of what I wanted, the friendliness and quality. That’s how Ride YourWay was born.”
Surge of growth
Since Ride YourWay’s founding, the transportation service has grown to seven wheelchair-accessible vans and one ambulatory sedan. It has 700-plus clients, reaching as far as Muskegon and Kalamazoo. The surge of clients gratifies Sikkema.
“It’s surprising because we’ve been doing this for almost five years now,” he says. “In 2021, we went from doing 600 rides total to, in 2022, 5,307 rides.
“We have different performance metrics that we monitor on a weekly basis,” says Sikkema. “And as we on-board more clients and contracts with them in the community, those performance metrics tell us if we need to purchase more vehicles to have out there and drum up more business. The numbers talk to us, and we respond in kind.”
Sikkema knows what it’s like to juggle a few balls simultaneously. He launched Ride YourWay in 2018 while working full-time as a pediatric RN at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. From there, he gradually weaned himself from working as a RN, shifting to part-time starting in December 2021 while building his transportation business. He made the leap to making Ride YourWay his full-time endeavor in December 2022.
He considers his wife of two years, Michelle Sikkema, his “moral support compass.”
A sense of family is at the core of his business.
“I keep saying to the team, we’re really about our culture providing everybody a family-oriented type of service,” Sikkema says. “I care about my employees as much as my family, which transfers over to our clients.”
Meeting individual needs
Sikkema says his business cannot operate with a cookie-cutter mentality.
“We’re a human-centered company,” he says. “We’re providing a transportation service, hence the word ‘Ride.” And Ride ‘YourWay’ really speaks to the individual needs of the client. What might work for our first client of the day is going to be completely different for the next client of the day. It’s not a one-size fits all type of business. It’s really catered to an individual’s wants and needs, and that’s how we arrived at the name.”
It’s gratifying that her husband’s need for wheelchair-accessible transportation is not a barrier, says Young’s wife of 56 years, Melinda.
“They’re friendly; they’re professional, caring,” says Melinda. “They’re reliable and they’re flexible, because there are mornings where dialysis can’t get the lines going and I get a message at 5:30 a.m., ‘I need to be picked up.’ It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, Ride YourWay comes back and gets him.”
Sikkema smiles. The wheels and gears of his business’ vehicles enable him to fulfill a basic, human need.
“It’s the people, it’s as simple as that,” he says. “Whether it’s the team members or the clients we’re servicing, we really put our all in what we do. It definitely shows. We wear our heart on our sleeve.”
This article is a part of the year-long series Disability Inclusion exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.