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Who ya gonna call? Try 211

November 12, 2006|by CANDICE BOSELY

WASHINGTON COUNTY - I think my child's friend is being abused. Who should I call?

Where is the nearest AA meeting?

How can I find affordable housing?

Who can help me pay my electric bill?

I think my spouse needs a therapist. Who can help me find one?

Where are parenting classes offered?

Where can I get an HIV test?

Anyone who needs answers to questions such as these can thumb through a telephone book and try to discern the proper number to call.

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Or they can call 211.

A new toll-free number that is staffed by call specialists 24 hours a day, seven days week, now is in operation for residents in Frederick and Washington counties.

"I think it's going to be an incredible service," said Dale Bannon, executive director of the United Way of Washington County. "I think, ultimately, it's going to improve the quality of life for everyone."

The United Way has been a driving force behind setting up 211 call systems nationwide, and launched the first one, in Atlanta. Currently, 41 states have some form of a 211 system in place.

West Virginia has the system in place, while Pennsylvania is in the planning stages.

'Second question' idea

Four call centers have been set up in Maryland - one on the Eastern Shore, one in Central Maryland, one in Prince George's County and one in Frederick, which also handles calls from Washington County, said Patricia Hanberry, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Frederick County.

Employees and trained volunteers with the Mental Health Association of Frederick County are the people who answer local calls placed to 211. Such "call specialists" must undergo 40 hours of training as well as in-service work, and use the "second question" idea.

If a person calls and needs a coat for a child, the call specialist will ask a second question, such as whether the caller also needs help paying a heating bill, Hanberry said.

"They're really trained to find out what the callers need," Hanberry said.

Advantages for callers include an easy-to-remember phone number, as well as a centralized source of information. For those organizing the program, a log is kept of calls received, allowing them to see which needs are not being met.

"What are people asking for that we don't have?" Hanberry said.

Nonprofit and other community agencies provide information about programs and activities, with that information then entered into a database that the call specialists can access when someone needs help or information.

Agencies are encouraged to provide updates. For example, information about Thanksgiving dinners can be provided, then passed on to callers seeking a place to eat a Thanksgiving meal, Hanberry said.

"We can't guess what people are doing," she said.

Almost 100 calls

The program began operating in "stealth mode" - meaning no publicity was done - at the end of August, and went into full operation in the second week of October.

The first caller was a woman from Connecticut who was visiting family in Washington County. Hanberry said she cannot remember what specifically the woman needed, but said that Connecticut has had a 211 system in place for several years.

"She just picked up the phone and dialed 211 because she thought she could," Hanberry said.

In October, 60 calls were received. This month, through Friday, 38 calls had been received, said Dana Grayson, the hot line manager.

Asked to outline a couple of calls, Grayson said that in one instance, a woman who needed emergency housing called.

"Until finding the 211 number, she had no idea where to start," Grayson said.

In another case, a call was received from a woman whose husband has a certain disease. The woman was trying to find a doctor with expertise on the disease, and she was given the number to a medical referral service that she previously did not know about, Grayson said.

Currently, the 211 program, considered to be a pilot program, is not being funded. A presentation will be made during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, to request that the state provide funding to keep it operating, Hanberry said.

If the program becomes firmly established, it also will become a central communication point that people can use during a disaster to find out about road closures, shelter areas and other needs, Hanberry said.




Questions answered about 211

Q: What is 211?

A: 211 is a toll-free number that residents of Washington and Frederick counties can call to receive information and referrals on health and human services matters. Topics that call specialists can help with include basic needs such as food, shelter and bill-payment assistance; physical and mental health needs; employment support; support for older people and those with disabilities; help for children and families; and suicide prevention and crisis intervention.

Q: When can I call?

A: Call specialists are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Q: Will I be able to speak to a real person?

A: Yes. After pressing "1," you will be directly connected to a trained specialist in Frederick, Md.

Q: Does this service work from my cell phone?

A: No. However, those with cell phones may call 1-800-422-0009 and reach the same call specialists as those who dial 211.

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