Cross-country bus trip means more accessible activities at Salem YMCA

Rob Weathers was on a mission fueled by Salem’s generosity and orange Fanta. 

On Thursday, Feb. 15, Weathers landed in South Bend, Indiana. He was tasked with driving a brand new Ford F450 bus 2,281 miles.

The trip would deliver the Salem Family YMCA a 14-passenger bus.

The trip came after Jessica Otjen, YMCA resource development director, reached out to Don Lulay, owner of Lulay’s Car Connection, with a request. 

The YMCA wanted a fully accessible bus to provide activities for members who use wheelchairs.

The ask was inspired by a 25-year-old woman and YMCA member who dreams of having a girl’s day out with a pedicure. Otjen said the woman was in a car accident at 18 that left her with serious injuries and brain trauma.

“She comes to the Y everyday to work on being able to walk again. Her dream has been to go to the salon with her YMCA friends, but transportation is limited for her because of her wheelchair,” Otjen said.

Lulay has years of experience facilitating and brokering vehicle purchases for Salem’s nonprofit community. He often donates his services and expertise, asking questions to ask to ensure Salem’s nonprofit community’s transportation needs are met. 

“It is an honor to me when I am asked to buy a vehicle for a nonprofit,” Lulay said. 

Lulay found the perfect bus in Indiana. It has 12 captain chairs with designated areas for two individuals who use a wheelchair. 

He also reached out to a potential donor who encouraged the organization to write a request. Lulay helped the YMCA craft the appeal, writing, “The introduction of a vehicle to the YMCA’s transportation fleet is not only socially responsible but also essential to fulfilling the organization’s mission of youth development, healthy living, and community engagement. It ensures that the YMCA remains a vital resource accessible to all, regardless of transportation challenges, while promoting community inclusivity.”

The donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, contributed $130,000.

Lulay and Weathers have been friends for 45 years. When Lulay asked Weathers to drive a new bus from Indiana to Oregon, Weathers jumped at the opportunity.  

“I give credit to that guy, to take on a four day adventure through the rain and sleet,” Lulay said.

Weathers finds the road “reflective and peaceful” and an opportunity to listen to classic rock. 

The day after the check was written, Weathers was on a plane.

His first day on the road, he reached Juliet, Illinois, waking up to nine degree temperatures and snow. He drove through “cold, blowing snow with 30 to 40 miles per hour side winds.” 

Weathers does not have a favorite road trip snack, but he does love an orange Fanta. Fueled by soda, he drove to Kearney, Nebraska. In the morning, he woke up to “clear blue skies as far as I could see.” 

Weathers was in constant communication with Otjen, who shared the journey on the YMCA Facebook page.

“Our driver Rob Weathers just passed through Iowa City and he’s 230 miles from the border of Iowa and Nebraska,” she posted on Facebook on Feb. 16 “Keep it up Rob. Our teens can’t wait to take this beauty on a field trip to visit a local college. Which college or university do you think they should visit first?”

On his way to Wyoming, Weathers crossed the Continental Divide. A year prior, Weathers drove a bus from Kansas City, Missouri for the Boys & Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk counties. Lulay believes that Weathers has “probably done a half dozen cross country trips” thanks to his passion to support the Salem community.

Weathers drove 730 miles on Sunday, primarily to “get out of the weather.” He spent the evening in Pendleton and finished the journey on Monday. 

The Lulay’s Car Connection team detailed the bus after its long cross-country journey. Hilario Baltazar and Ashley Smithson of Lulay’s Car Connection delivered the bus to the YMCA on Tuesday. 

Baltazar reported that the YMCA staff were “excited and clapping. They even rang a bell.” 

Baltazar has helped deliver several buses in Salem and was “not expecting such a joyous welcome. It was wild!”

Rebekah Willhite is a freelance writer in Salem. Contact her at [email protected].

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Rebekah Willhite - Special to Salem Reporter