211 WNY sees more calls during Covid-19 pandemic

By Ginny Kropf, correspondent Posted 11 May 2020 at 10:09 am

One information service which is helping residents find the help they need, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic, is the United Way-funded 211 WNY.

211 is a nationwide informational helpline which, in 2018, connected 12.8 million people across the United States to the help they needed. It is one of a dozen agencies which depend upon funding from United Way of Orleans County.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, 100,000 calls (outside of New York City), have been made to 211, according to Dean Bellack, director of United Way of Orleans County. The seven counties served by 211 WNY received 60,476 calls in 2019.

In Orleans County resources available include abuse and domestic violence, adult protection, animals, childcare, food, mental health and substance use services and COVID-19 information, including health concerns, masks and testing.

United Way supports 211 units across the United States. In fact, in 1997 United Way of Greater Atlanta was the first organization to make information and referral services accessible using the 211 dialing code. In 2000, United Ways, in partnership with the Alliance for Information and Referral Systems and other non-profit organizations operating helplines, successfully lobbied the Federal Communication Commission to make 211 a dedicated number for people in need of local information and resources. Today, United Ways operate or provide funding for more than 70 percent of 211 centers, including 211 WNY.

Kelly Dodd is director of Contact Center Services located in Buffalo. She oversees 211 in Western New York. She said specific to Orleans County, last year 339 calls were received.

211 locally grew out of a merger in 2014 between RAPP regional help phone and the Olmsted Center for Sight in Buffalo. 211 WNY has received funding from United Way of Orleans County for the past several years, which allows them to provide live operators to answer phones 24/7, Dodd said.

“We are in a strange time right now, with the coronavirus,” Dodd said. “As a result we are averaging a call a day from Orleans County.”

Most 211 operators work from home, Dodd said. All are trained to ask probing questions to fully understand the caller’s problems.

The establishment of 211 WNY also provided job opportunities for members of the Blind Association who are seeing impaired.

“Our partnership with United Way is important in our operation,” Dodd said.

She also said they welcomed the support from United Way and the opportunity to assist United Way of Orleans County in its newest endeavor to provide checks for the unemployed in the United We Help program. Those unemployed because of the coronavirus can apply for $100 relief checks, and 211 operators can assist in filling out the applications, if necessary.

That is also an opportunity for 211 to ask if the caller needs any other services and advise them of what is available.

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