211 Helpline connects people with services
By MCKENZIE CASSIDY
The United Way is a national network of advocates that has been connecting people with services and assistance since 1887. The organization’s 211 Information and Referral Line was started in August 2003 in Southwest Florida as a way to streamline hundreds of services into one easy-to-remember phone number.
A 24-hour non-emergency help line, it connects residents of Lee, Hendry and Glades counties to receive housing, food, medical services, help for their children and more.
Linda Pankow, director of United Way 211, said the national number was established in 1997, but it wasn’t established in Southwest Florida until the end of 2003 after AIDS Link lost funding. Each year participation in 211 has increased steadily, especially in 2008 because of the economy.
“Every year it increases by some percentage due to the economic downturn,” said Pankow. “Between this year and last year our call volume has doubled.”
Cliff Smith, president of the United Way, said 211 developed into a local hub connecting people with vital services. He added that it’s important to let people know about this service.
“We value the program,” said Smith. “It’s also only as good as the network of agencies and we think we have an excellent group of agencies.”
Between 2007 and 2008 the call volume increased from 25,714 calls to 40,247 calls per year. Furthermore, Southwest Florida residents are calling for various reasons.
Pankow said call volumes over the last three months of 2008 increased by 65 percent.
The top five requested needs in the last three months of 2008 included assistance with electric bills, non-emergency food, rent payments, employment assistance, help with medical care or prescriptions. Many of the other calls at the end of last year included assistance during the holidays.
“Obviously a lot of calls over the holidays were for help with meals and gifts,” said Pankow.
Agencies across the state also have seen their budgets cut, but Pankow said the United Way works diligently to make sure local residents receive the help they need. At this time the organization has only been affected by increased call volumes, but that doesn’t mean help isn’t being doled out.
“The 211 program is here to provide the resources that may be able to meet that person’s need,” said Pankow.
Officials have a policy where they check up on residents 10 days after they receive a referral. They are asked how the assistance worked out and if they need anything further.
On Friday morning, the United Way of Lee, Hendry and Glades counties teamed up with Consumer Credit Counseling to offer free tax preparation services called the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. The services are targeted at families, with children, earning $42,000 or less each year or individuals who make less than $16,000.
The VITA program will help residents receive Earned Income Tax Credits, other child tax credits and will be available at six locations including the Cape Coral United Way House on 1105 Cultural Park Drive.
Local residents can also reach the Lee County Foreclosure Task Force to assist with foreclosures and provide bankruptcy clinics by calling 211.
In 2007 the United Way raised $7.6 million in funding from the community. Ninety percent of the funds go to 160 social service agencies in the region. Overall, the United Way estimates it serves 300,000 children and families each year.
For more information, visit www.unitedwaylee.org