News : Collier's United Way Starts 211 Help Line
March 15, 2012 -- Collier County leaders for 12 years discussed implementing a human services helpline that’s offered in municipalities across the country, but no organization had the manpower, will or budget to take it on.
Until last month, Collier was the only county in the state that did not offer a 24-hour 211 referral line.
The United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta launched 211 in 1997, and the system often is run by United Way affiliates. With only a handful of employees, Collier’s United Way was too small to take on the project and the Community Foundation of Collier County stepped in, said Mary George, special projects director for the foundation.
"I’ve heard from many nonprofits over the last several years, ‘Why don’t we have this?’" George said. "Someone had to take a leadership role and the foundation’s board decided that’s where we needed to be putting our time and effort. It’s so needed."
Lee’s United Way has operated 211 for a decade with seven employees who answer calls at two centers, said Cliff Smith, president of the United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades.
When people dial the federally designated number — available to almost 90 percent of U.S. residents — callers are connected to counselors who direct them to local services ranging from housing assistance to Alzheimer’s resources and help during natural disasters.
The foundation’s 211 has about 400 registered programs and $600,000 in donations and grants toward the $630,000 it hopes to raise for the first three years of operation. It contracted with Switchboard of Miami to answer a call volume that George estimated could grow to 3,000 by year’s end.
Lee’s United Way budgets more than $300,000 annually for its tri-county service, with 80 percent coming from its capital campaign and 20 percent from grants, Smith said. About 1,400 programs are registered with the service.
Needs are almost identical in both counties, with the majority of callers being women asking for help with housing, utilities and emergency food.
Collier 211 received about 90 calls in its first few weeks, the majority from east Naples residents between ages 60 and 75.
Most of the 51,433 calls in Lee, Hendry and Glades counties last year came from Cape Coral, Fort Myers and Lehigh Acres. Callers aren’t asked their age unless it’s relevant to the service they need. Of those provided age, about 20 percent were seniors.
Information helps nonprofits identify gaps in service, Smith said. When data a few years ago revealed many adults were calling to find out how to get food for children, for example, United Way increased collaborations with agencies such as Harry Chapin Food Bank. It helped organize mobile food drops that last year served about 20,000 people.
"The data is certainly really helpful, but even more important, it gives us a vehicle to very quickly launch new programs because when you do the public awareness, they (organizations) can just funnel back to us (through 211)," Smith said.
Collier nonprofits are waiting to see how the service might change the way its agencies operate.
"It’s great for people to be able to get the information they need in one place," said Kelley Nellius, director of community services for Immokalee Housing and Family Services, which has waiting lists for its 120 affordable housing units. "It will be interesting to see how it works in practice."
Glitches typical to 211 launches have plagued Collier in its first month, with some calls not properly routing to operators. Jeffrey Struchtemeyer, director of helpline services for Switchboard of Miami, said those issues are being worked out with some of the smaller phone carriers.
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
Published: Friday, March 16, 2012
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