Katie Pennington-Rimmer is many things: a former Miss Michigan, a former American expatriate, a State College transplant, Mom to a daughter who lives in South Africa and a son who lives in China, a baby boomer with joie de vivre to spare.
But the title she treasures most is writ large across the bedazzled dashboard of her 2006 Honda Odyssey.
Enter the “Uber Mama.”
“One of the students started calling me that,” Pennington-Rimmer, 59, said, laughing. “I think several of them have a picture of that in their phone.”
By day, Pennington-Rimmer runs activities for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients at Juniper Village Wellspring Memory Care. But by night, she hops into the “Mamamobile” or her “Uber Baby,” as she calls it, and sets off to assist college students looking for a ride redolent of Mom’s minivan. Equipped with a healthy supply of blankets, shawls and snacks, the “Uber Baby” is akin to James Bond’s Aston Martin or Batman’s Batmobile. But instead of shooting smokescreens or thwarting the Joker, it features a more potent weapon: Mom.
“Sometimes they just need a listening ear; they need humor; they need a safe place where they can feel safe and not judged,” she said.
Pennington-Rimmer began driving for Uber on Halloween weekend a couple years ago. In between jobs, she needed something to help make ends meet. A friend suggested Uber and thus, amid the costumed chaos, the legend of the bedazzled, family-friendly, five-star-safety-rated crusader was born.
“We had so much fun,” said Pennington-Rimmer, who was accompanied by her husband that first weekend. “We went into the early hours.”
But, as she soon found out, all is not well on weekends in a college town.
“But also that first weekend, there was a young girl that we picked up and she was very inebriated and she needed a ride and we got her to her house and she couldn’t walk, so my husband and I carried her to the front door and got her in safely,” she said. “That’s kind of how my weekend started with Uber, and I thought, boy, these kids really need us out there.”
Since that first weekend, Pennington-Rimmer has escorted hundreds of students to and from their destinations on cold, sometimes foggy, nights when memories swirl hazily in the bottom of a plastic cup. Some nights, she says, she drives down fraternity row when the mercury hovers around freezing and parental supervision is on ice.
“I actually pray each time I go out, that whoever is supposed to be in my van will be in my van, that they will be in my care,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s by coincidence, a lot of people who come into my van.”
But the Uber Mama’s “baby” has grown up. Uber vehicles must be 10 years old or newer, according to company requirements, so at the beginning of 2017, Pennington-Rimmer’s ride was retired. She’s hoping to buy a new one by April or May, she said.
Because while this mom means business, she also wants to mean something else to her passengers: reliable, dependable, always there. Kind of like Mom.
Q: You mentioned you had a birthday coming up (Feb. 24). What’s the present you have in store?
A: My son studied Chinese at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. He got into the Chinese Law masters program in China and he just finished his degree. He’s lived there now for five years. I’m going there at the end of this month for two weeks and my daughter who still lives in South Africa is flying over as well. So it’s my 60th birthday present. The money to go over was earned from my Uber trips.
Q: As an Uber driver, you meet a lot of people. What are some memorable experiences?
A: Sometimes it can be a surprise. One day I picked up two international students just before Thanksgiving and we got the trip-to-start and it said Maryland… So I quickly went home and got a little extra cash for gas and on the road we went. Three-and-a-half hours later we had a riot; they were so nice. I took them to their host home and then got caught in an ice storm on the way back. I actually had to get a hotel.
Q: You’ve lived in South Africa for 30 years and your son and daughter seem to be global citizens. That global perspective seems to be a running theme in your life. How have your experiences helped you witness multiple aspects of humanity and connect with strangers regardless of their situation?
A: Yes, very much so. And interestingly enough, I have found the international students to be the most interesting and the most polite, and the diversity that we have in State College is really great. I lived overseas for so many years: I think that if I lived in a community that was too narrow-minded, it would be difficult for me. The kids tell me about their homes and the food they eat back where they’re from and what their culture and family are like and I always try to get that out of them. And they want to talk about it.
Q: You’re off the road for a bit. How are you holding up?
A: (laughs) I’m in Uber withdrawal. I can’t drive until I get a new car, so we’re trying to save because it’s our only car. I miss it a lot.
Q: What does the “Uber Mama” nickname the students gave you mean to you?
A: It’s a wonderful feeling. I just want to wrap them all up and make them a good meal. But I feel like just that little time in the car is sometimes enough for them. Because they do need that. It’s like that stability of having someone they can trust. Like a mom who can be there for them.