News : 211 Continues to Meet Needs, Grow
Midland, MI Jan 1, 2015 -- "There are a lot of resources here, but there are still people in need." Sarah Kile, executive director of 211 of Northeast Michigan, sees this reality every day as she works with those taking phone calls at the regional call center in Midland that connects people in need with health and human service resources to build healthy, safe communities.
Working at 211 means working to bring the community together, Kile said.
"Immediately coming on board I had foundations and United Ways coming to me and saying, ‘How can we all work together,’ and that’s what 211 does," she said. "So there’s a willingness to cooperate, a willingness to work together and just passion about making sure people have access to resources when they’re in need."
As of Dec. 17, the call center received 38,800 calls throughout the region, including 7,169 from Midland County. The total call volume in 2013 was 28,901.
There are tough days and hard calls, but 211 serves many people and makes a difference, Kile said.
"We focus on the bigger picture and serving the community," she said.
The high call volume in Midland is mostly because more people know that 211 exists, Kile said. Spreading the message in the program’s newer counties, now numbering more than 20, is an ongoing effort. She said part of the overall increase in calls this year is because of greater awareness, but it’s also because some of the communities served are seeing greater needs.
"We know the needs are going up," she said. "This summer we had just a huge increase in calls for electric service or utilities."
The advantage of 211 is that it can refer people to numerous service agencies, so they don’t have to research each one themselves. Anyone can call and seek help or get questions answered, Kile said.
"Sometimes the resource isn’t there, but even that’s an opportunity to share that information with our community. For example, showing that transportation is a need," Kile said. "How do we prove it’s a need, just by everyone saying it is? No, there are people who call and they have no help with transportation, and we can prove that."
People who call the free service get confidential help, so no one’s going to know, Kile said.
"If you’re going to work but can’t pay your electric bill, you’re stressed," she said. "We can relieve some of that stress by finding the resource, or at least letting them know if it’s out there or not. What often happens with an unmet need is our call specialists will ask if there’s anything else we can help with. Maybe there’s no help with your electric service because right now there’s no agencies with money, but what about rent? Can we find other places? Do you go to church? Is there a place that maybe isn’t listed? Even if we can’t help with your electric bill, maybe someone can help you with groceries this week and you can put that couple hundred dollars into your electric and keep it from being shut off."
It’s all about connecting people, and the more people who know about 211, the more who will use it, Kile said.
"There are great resources and great organizations in the communities, and people need to know how to access that," she said.
Kile began her role with 211 earlier this year when her predecessor, Scott Redman, left to work on a statewide veterans’ service initiative. He had helped build the 211 organization, which is an expansion of Midland County’s First Call for Help, which served the residents of Midland County, and Listening Ear, which served the residents of Isabella and Clare Counties.
"Because Scott has served as a veteran, he was just the perfect recruit for them," Kile said. "We were so sad to see him go because he was so great at the center, but they couldn’t have picked a better guy to do it. He did quite a bit building this call center and being a veteran, it was a great move for him."
She had been on the board of 211 of Northeast Michigan since the system expanded into Gladwin County. One person from every county sits on the board to make sure every county has a voice. She has a health advocacy background, having worked at the Ten Sixteen Recovery Network and then a county health department.
"I’m coming from an advocacy background of wanting to see the entire community be stronger, which is exactly what 211 does," she said. "That’s why I get so excited about it, because when 211 is strong, that means that there are agencies listed (in our database), that we’re working together and people don’t have to make 15 phone calls. We strengthen both the people to advocate for themselves and the social services where they don’t have to get everyone to remember their nine-digit numbers, they just have to remember one number: 211."
The 211 network now covers almost all of the state, with more than 20 counties in the Northeast region led by Kile. There are other call centers in other regions, and everyone in the state works well together, Kile said. They all use the same computer programs, so one center can help others if needed. Kile saw this in action this summer as floods hit the Detroit area.
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"They were just bombarded with calls," she said. "With a few clicks of the button, we rerouted some of their calls to our call center and take some of their burden."
The goal is to bring all counties under the 211 system, Kile said.
"I like that our control is very local," Kile said. "Every one of our counties has a board member so that they have a voice, but having a statewide push really gives us all better resources."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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