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The 411 on 2-1-1: Connecting the Community to Health and Human Services

The United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey unveiled the new and improved 2-1-1: a free phone number that locally connects people with essential health and human services

You are a single father with two children living in Lansdale, and you desperately need daycare services — now.

You are the parents to a teen son and he desperately needs a good mentor in the Pottstown area — ASAP.

You and your husband live in Harleysville, and there's a challenge in finding a home for your aging parents — the clock is ticking.

Don't fret — there's no need to stress and scour the Internet for local and government services to meet your health and human services needs.

Just dial 2-1-1.

One call. That's all.

On Monday, Feb. 11, the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey launched a new and improved free telephone service called 2-1-1 in southeastern Pennsylvania.

It's promoted as the one-stop phone call where those in need of services, regardless of income, can get answers from a trained specialist.

No matter what you're looking for — food pantries, training, employment, affordable housing options and more — 2-1-1 has the answer.

"We have been talking about this for years. It's been a long, long time," said Wendy David, associate vice president of Community Investment and Operations for United Way of Greater Philadelphia & Southern New Jersey.

David updated the members of the Greater North Penn Collaborative for Health and Human Services at its meeting Tuesday on the 2-1-1 system launch.

"We launched quietly four years ago in the region, but we were not able to talk publicly. We had no funding to ramp up and have call specialists on the other end of the line," David said.

She said there is now a partnership with United Way in Southern New Jersey where dedicated Southeastern Pennsylvania United Way staff and seven full-time call specialists work out of their offices.

"If the call specialist looks through the database and gets stumped, they will ask for your name and phone number to call you back with an answer," David said.

Sarah Whetstone, executive director of North Penn United Way, said the North Penn Community Health Foundation and the Montgomery County Foundation were instrumental in making the 2-1-1 system a reality in the North Penn region. Partnerships with United Ways in Bucks County, Chester County, Delaware County and south Chester County have also helped make the system a reality.

"You have to understand, 2-1-1 is not just here; it is a national network. We are one of three states that did not have 2-1-1 coverage," Whetstone said. "It is a proud week."

Callers can connect to human needs resources like food banks, shelters and utility assistance; phsyical and mental health resources like crisis intervention and support groups; employment supports like financial assistance and education programs; older and aging adult services like Meals on Wheels, home health care and transportation; children, youth and family support like childcare, after school programs and summer camps; and regional disaster preparation.

"Every hour, of every day, someone in the Greater Philadelphia area needs resourcs that health and human services can provide," Whetstone said. "Whether it's transition housing or crisis intervention, people need help everyday. It can be overwhelming if they don't know where to start."

The 2-1-1 number allows a specialist to connect a caller to thousands of nonprofit programs and services in a five-county area, all with one call.

"It empowers local residents to access services and resources to improve their lives," Whetstone said. "It also helps nonprofits serve more people more effectively. It can help all shape their futures."

She said specialists are trained to identify needs, and they can hone in on a problem and make a "quick and effective" connection to a local organization.

"2-1-1 is a lifeline," Whetstone said.

Laura Zink Marx, executive director at NJ 2-1-1 Partnership, described the public online portal at www.211sepa.org as a place where agencies can "meet people where they are." She said the portal allows agencies to learn about services available to their clients. More than 4,000 programs and services are compiled in the website's database.

The public portal of 211sepa.org connects people to Hurricane Sandy response and recovery resources, commonly used toll free numbers, CDC.gov, and COMPASS.

By clicking the big orange circle labeled "Start a Search," users and providers can search the database via keywords, topic, locations, ZIP code or agency names. For instance, a keyword search for "food" brought up 277 hits for "food" and 194 hits for "emergency food."

Clicking "Emergency Food" brought up listings of meals and soup kitchens, like St. Stanislaus Church in Lansdale. Marx said agencies can either call 2-1-1 to update its information or log in with a name and password to update information on their own.

Furthermore, 2-1-1 also offers a downloadable link for utility assistance guidebook, where people can get information on utility assistance funds and LIHEAP, or Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, for instance. There is also a tax assistance book online.

"We are hoping the site is helpful to you as you assist clients," said Marx.

Russell Johnson, president and CEO of North Penn Community Health Foundation, encouarged representatives in attendance to meet with staff and pull up and look at the record of their respective agencies in the database. He said the listings may be wrong or not up to date.

"Nobody knows you exist if you're not in this database," he said. "This is where you as an organization can have it at your fingertips. It will only be as good as what you make it."

According to the United Way, 2-1-1, as a national service, is estimated to proivde $1.1 billion in net value over the next decade.

Whetstone said the North Penn United Way is one of seven regions in the 2-1-1 network. In Pennsylvania, 2-1-1 serves 45 of 67 counties. David said 90 percent of the U.S. population has 2-1-1 service.

"It's been years and years of sweat and tears and years and years in the making," Whetstone said.

2-1-1 is only available, however, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. It is available 24/7 online at www.211sepa.org.

2-1-1 has multilingual accessibility and live translation, with more than 170 languages and dialects.

Don't forget the other members of the 2-1-1 "family":

  • 3-1-1 (Philadelphia only) for city hall and municipal services
  • 4-1-1 for local directory assistance
  • 9-1-1 for emergency response

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