Hendricks County Flyer, Avon, IN

February 12, 2013

211 goes statewide

By Wade Coggeshall
CNHI

INDIANAPOLIS — More economic indicators are showing progress, but a variety of needs are still high. That's what has made Connect2Help such a vital resource.

The program, a United Way community partner, has a free 24-hour hotline at 211. By calling that a person is connected with an operator who has access to a database of more than 1,800 non-profit, governmental, and faith-based organizations providing more than 6,000 services. There's also a website at connect2help.org.

Connect2Help spun off from United Way 25 years ago. It added its 211 service in 2004.

"I really compliment the board and staff," Ellen Annala, president and CEO of United Way of Central Indiana, said during a recent gathering. "You have taken it so much further and turned it in to such a professional service. This state can be proud of it."

State is the key word. Thanks to a partnership with the Department of Family Resources, this year 211 has been able to expand beyond central Indiana to cover the whole state.

"Not that we're dropping names, but we did it in nine years and 911 I think it took them, like, 10," joked Lynn Engel, president and CEO of Connect2Help. But in all seriousness she added, "Some of our more rural counties, which tend to be the ones that haven't been covered, the need there has not tended to ease like it has in some of the bigger cities."

Even a fast-growing and more affluent county like Hendricks has a need for 211. Last year Connect2Help received almost 3,000 calls to its hotline from Hendricks County, and almost that same number in online searches. Housing was the top need, followed by help paying utilities and holiday assistance. The majority of the calls came from five ZIP codes, Plainfield being No. 1.

"We are able to steer those folks who need help to those agencies that can provide that help," Engel said.

Indeed, based on Connect2Help surveys, 84 percent of their callers do contact at least one referral provided to them. Of those 73 percent report improvement in their situation. Of all 211 calls, 8 percent are recorded as having their needs unmet. But aside from having no resources for that specific need, the other main reasons for this are the caller isn't eligible for assistance or the call is interrupted, usually because a cell phone is cut off or the caller hangs up.

Connect2Help's phone operators aren't just trained in referrals but also crisis situations. The latter was added when 211 service went 24/7.

"When you answer that phone, you never know exactly what you're going to hear," said Ron Guidotti, a phone room supervisor who's worked at 211 about four years.

Some calls can be quite serious. Guidotti took one from a man on a Friday morning once. He was standing on a bridge and had run out of reasons not to jump. Once Guidotti determined the man had made up his mind, he was able to ask enough questions to pinpoint his whereabouts and get police there.

Other calls can be much more general.

"I actually had a lady who needed help plugging in her answering machine because she had no idea and no one to ask," Guidotti said.

All calls are confidential unless specific information is needed in order to determine what referral is needed. One of 211's biggest partnerships now is the Domestic Violence Network. Officials thought a three-digit phone number would be easier to remember in such a situation. Julie Marsh, DVN's president and CEO, says 211's impact has been immeasurable.

"From a direct service provider's perspective, if 211 hadn't been created we'd probably have a lot more folks who'd lost their lives or felt hopeless," Marsh said.

Brad Ellsworth, former U.S. Representative for Indiana's Eighth Congressional District and now president of Vectren Energy Delivery, serves on the Indiana 211 Partnership Board. He knows a thing or two about such a service, having worked as a 911 operator for 25 years.

"I would've done that for free," Ellsworth said. "I know people say that, but I loved that job. We liked catching the bad guy, but what really gave you more pleasure was when you just helped someone."

He feels the same way about 211 and Connect2Help, even after his time in Washington, D.C., when so much of the talk was about too many people abusing social welfare programs.

"Sometimes people just need a helping hand," Ellsworth said. "Sometimes it's as simple as not knowing where to go. That's what's great about this service. It's a simple one-stop shop. The services are out there, and these experts know how to connect people to them."

wade.coggeshall@flyergroup.com