211: Getting the 411 on Services in Your Area

Do you know where to call to find out about childcare for a disabled child? How about getting power restored if you couldn’t pay the bill? Getting information about care for your aging parent? There’s one answer to all of these: Just dial 211.

A nationwide United Way initiative, the 211 call lines are regionally manned with a local database of resources to help residents with everything from disaster relief to veterans issues to housing and utilities. Where these services used to be listed in print directories that were not widely known among the general public (and were not free), information is now easily accessible by dialing 211 or online at SC211.org.

Each local United Way office maintains its own database of services and contracts with regional call centers to field the calls. Here in the Upstate, calls are answered at the United Way Association of South Carolina’s (UWASC) call center in Columbia, with the exception of Anderson County, which is unique in its arrangement—possibly in the country, according to Carol Burdette, president of the United Way of Anderson County.

In their case, the local EMS provider, MedShore Ambulance Service, approached the United Way and offered to make their dispatch call center available for the 211 service.

Elizabeth Capell, an administrative assistant at MedShore, helps field the calls during the day while she is in the office, but the service is available around the clock. Capell, who has a background in psychology, says that gives her a lens through which to view this particular part of her job, but that the protocol for taking a call is relatively straightforward, with the progressive screens guiding dispatchers through the process.

Starting with the caller’s zip code, information is collected that helps to pinpoint what kind of service is needed, but also helps paint a picture of who is using the call line and what kinds of services are needed. In Anderson, Capell says, there are not a lot of crisis calls; most are for rent or utility assistance, and she estimates that the service receives an average of 170 calls per month.

Burdette refers to the service as “a hidden gem—but we really don’t want it to be a secret.” As disaster preparedness is becoming more of a focus, she says, the 211 line becomes a great tool, and it can keep 911 lines free for actual emergencies. But people have to know that it’s there for it to be used.

A recent example in our state is the flooding in the midlands when, says Richard LaPratt, VP of Call Center Services for the UWASC, the 211 call center was used as a go-to for everything from FEMA assistance to repair services, working closely with the state and federal agencies to be able to offer answers to residents who called in.

The Columbia call center, which also handles Medicaid, DHEC, DSS, and food stamps calls, has a staff of 238 who handle 2.4 million calls a year—of which about 150,000 are 211 calls—so they are well able to absorb sudden spikes in call volume, LaPratt says.

Another such spike occurred in the Piedmont United Way area (covering Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union Counties) last September. “I thought the report was wrong when I looked at the numbers,” LaPratt says—the September call volume was twice what it normally was. A little digging revealed that the increase was due to a hepatitis A scare from tainted food at local fast food restaurants, and people were calling to find out if they needed treatment, and if so, where to go.

Currently, most of the awareness for the 211 line comes from posters and flyers at the offices of the referring organizations themselves, and local United Way branches are responsible for funding and promoting it.

“I do want to stress that 97% of the country is covered by 211, and we’re all tied in together,” LaPratt says—so if you’re looking for services for an aging parent in another city, for example, you can call and give that city’s zip code and get connected to the help you need.

Images Courtesy of United Way Association of South Carolina.

Sharon Purvis is a freelance writer and editor who makes her home with her husband in Duncan, South Carolina. You can find more of her work at SharonPurvisWrites.com.