It's not a typical car pool. Colleen Matarelli and Melody Harris are not co-workers. In fact, they had never even met before last week. Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer. The disease forced her to give up her job as a nursing assistant and move in with her daughter. But the most crushing blow came when Harris' van was repossessed, leaving her no way to get to her doctor's appointments. That's where Matarelli comes in.

It's not a typical car pool.


Colleen Matarelli and Melody Harris are not co-workers. In fact, they had never even met before last week.


Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer. The disease forced her to give up her job as a nursing assistant and leave the trailer that was her home. Harris and her 14-year-old son, David, had to move in with her 22-year-old daughter, Kim.


But the most crushing blow came when Harris' van was repossessed, leaving her no way to get to her doctor's appointments.


"After they took back the van, I had no way to get around," she said. "My daughter doesn't have a car, either."


That's where Matarelli comes in. A retired nurse from Peoria, she's a volunteer for the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery. It's a program that pairs volunteer drivers with cancer patients who cannot provide their own transportation.


With 40 drivers, the West Central Illinois Region of the cancer society was able to provide about 2,000 rides for more than 200 patients across a 12-county area last year. But more drivers are needed, said Courtney Heiser, senior patient services representative for the West Central region.


"Even with that many drivers, we still aren't meeting the demand," Heiser said.


When drivers are not available, the cancer society has provided cab rides for patients, but that can get costly. A one-way cab trip for Harris to get to her appointment last week cost $31.


The program is strictly voluntary, and there is no reimbursement for gas money. Those interested in becoming volunteer drivers can contact the West Central Illinois Region of the American Cancer Society at (309) 688-3488. Volunteers must have their own car, a valid driver's license and be willing to undergo a background check.


Matarelli, who began driving last year after her father-in-law died of cancer, said the program provides its own rewards.


"You meet the sweetest people in the world," she said. "Sometimes they are quiet and don't want to talk, but usually they're eager to talk, and a bond forms very quickly."


That seemed to be the case Friday, when Matarelli drove Harris to her radiation therapy. The Peoria women had met only the day before, when Matarelli drove Harris to her previous appointment, but they already talked like friends. During the hourlong round trip, they discussed everything from politics to favorite TV shows. The two also shared stories from their mutual background in nursing.


It's a gratifying experience all around.


"All the patients have overwhelming gratitude," Matarelli said. "And I'm like, 'Sweetheart, all I did was give you a ride.' And it's just so much fun for me."


Tim Sampson can be reached at (309) 686-3251 or tsampson@pjstar.com.