UW Sunday Column: Where to turn when you need help

2-1-1-homepageAs originally published in the Our Towns Section of the State Journal-Register on February 7, 2016.

Where would you turn for help if you lost your job, needed counseling, or suffered a loss due to natural disaster?

Every day in our community, individuals and families find themselves in need of help for any number of reasons. In some cases, it may be an individual who is facing financial hardship. In other cases, it may be a family looking for a summer learning program for a child. In either case, help is just a single phone call away. Simply dial 2-1-1.

This Thursday, February 11, is National 2-1-1 Day, in recognition of the free, user-friendly phone number that serves 90% of America’s population, and connects some 16 million people a year to critical resources, information and services.

In Sangamon and Menard Counties, more than 3,200 people turned to 2-1-1 for help last year. People called to find information for meeting basic needs, like heating or utility assistance, emergency help, or to find the closest food pantry. But they also called for everyday information, such as where to take their child for developmental screening, how to locate job training, or to find free tax filing support.

United Way first introduced 2-1-1 to our community in May of 2012. The long-awaited launch was part of our ongoing effort to better connect people in our community with the services they need.

Although new to our community, 2-1-1 was launched by United Way Worldwide almost 20 years ago as a free way to connect people to essential resources. Today, 2-1-1 serves more than 283 million Americans– more than 90% of our population — in all 50 states, plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

In 2014 almost 20 million people called 2-1-1 in the U.S. about job training, employment, food pantries, help for an aging parent, addiction prevention programs, affordable housing options, support groups and volunteer opportunities. After a disaster, when many land lines aren’t working, people call 2-1-1 to search out water, food, shelter, and disaster aid.

Unfortunately, Illinois was one of the last states to organize 2-1-1 services. However, by working with state officials and service providers, local United Way’s have now made the service available across half the state.
Locally, we were one of the first areas in Illinois to launch 2-1-1 and our community is better for it.

2-1-1 phone calls are fielded by trained specialists who can quickly assess the caller’s needs and refer them to the help they seek. The resource line offers callers information on a wide range of support services including senior care, job training, healthcare resources, rent and utility assistance, counseling, and after school programs.

For individuals, it means that a single phone call, answered 24 hours a day, can save hours of searching for the services they are seeking. Moreover, 2-1-1 reduces the staff time our local agencies spend on routine referral assistance, and data collected by 2-1-1 helps United Way to identify the greatest immediate needs in our community.

Although a majority of calls fielded by 2-1-1 are for individuals in need of housing, shelter and food security issues, it is important that our community recognizes 2-1-1 as the resource line during a time of community-wide crisis such as a tornado or other disaster.

In the unfortunate event of a natural or man-made disaster, 2-1-1 provides an immediate lifeline to information and referrals. Working with federal, state and local responders New Jersey’s 2-1-1 system fielded tens-of-thousands of phone calls for assistance following Hurricane Sandy. Many of these non-emergency calls would have been made to the community’s 9-1-1 system, clogging phone lines and causing delays in response to emergency situations.

Locally, United Way has begun work with state and local emergency management officials to better educate the public on the availability of 2-1-1 and its important role during times of community-wide crisis.

As a general rule of thumb, during times of natural or man-made disasters, 9-1-1 should be used for emergency situations involving police, fire and ambulatory services. 2-1-1 should be used for other calls for assistance.

Please remember, next time you find yourself in need of assistance… pick up the phone, dial 2-1-1, get connected and get answers.

2-1-1 services can also be accessed by dialing 1-888-865-9903.

John Kelker is the president of United Way of Central Illinois. Learn more about 2-1-1 here. Look for United Way Columns weekly in Our Towns.