By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY June 16, 2006 The days of making six calls to get one referral are over in Sullivan County.
Residents in the seven-county Hudson Valley region of New York State are part of a pilot program kicked off by the FCC to make finding information about health and human services in your community a snap.
And with the help of the United Way of Sullivan County, phone numbers for everything from the local food pantry to a list of certified child care providers are available at the touch of a button . . . well, three buttons.
The FCC designated 2-1-1 as a national number because 9-1-1 was becoming overloaded with non-emergency calls, said Linda Cellini, head of the local United Way.
You may think its an emergency if you cant find child care, but its not a 9-1-1 emergency.
To give folks an alternative, the Alliance for Information Referral Services joined forces with the United Way to put 2-1-1 in service across the nation.
Its slowly expanded, state by state, Cellini said, and as of last month, theres a 24-hour helpline in place for Sullivan County residents to call seven days a week.
Its been a five-year process to get 2-1-1 up and running, she explained, with a lot of help from local, state and federal legislators.
With funding from private foundations, businesses and citizens, the United Ways in the seven counties of the Hudson Valley began meeting to set up policy for the referral service.
In on the project were local representatives from each county for Sullivan County that included Cellini as well as Craig Fisher of Cornell Cooperative Extension and Marcia Braunstein of Liberty.
With a referral system already in place in Westchester County, the second region of New York to form a 2-1-1 call center had a head start.
The decision was made to use the Westchester helpline as a base, expanding the center to serve all seven counties.
With the help of Dick Robinson, head of information systems for Sullivan County, software was purchased and 2-1-1 went online late last year.
In Sullivan County, weve never even had an information referral number, Cellini said. With our two different area codes and the demographics, it was very hard.
Every time a directory of services was printed up, organizations would be missed or addresses changed in the time it took from collating information to distribution.
Local organizations couldnt keep everything straight, Cellini said.
I get calls all the time that someone was referred to me for something that we dont even do, she said.
It was frustrating for the people providing the services and even more frustrating for people looking for help.
Our county doesnt have a lot of jobs, and these services are needed, Cellini noted. Early intervention is necessary . . . if we can catch things before they become a crisis.
But people just dont know where to call.
Theyll make six different phone calls because each time theyre directed somewhere else, she explained.
By the time you make the third call, youre so frustrated because you feel no ones listening to you!
But the folks at 2-1-1 are trained to answer these calls.
If a person calls with more than one problem, they can provide more than one answer.
And most importantly, it is a real person answering the phone, Cellini said.
The operators have been briefed by folks from Sullivan County to understand the community even though theyre in Westchester County, one supervisor owns a home in Sullivan County.
And theyve been given the lay of the land so theyll recognize that someone calling from Callicoon likely doesnt have transportation to a soup kitchen in Monticello, Cellini explained.
The operators also have lists on their hands that are being updated constantly thanks to a Cappelli Foundation grant, the United Way in Sullivan County was able to hire someone part-time to keep up with the changes in local services.
The operators ask callers for their zip code, data that is used later in a breakdown sent monthly to the local United Ways to determine where there is a need in their communities.
A number of organizations that serve the county dont have offices here, Cellini said, but the call center can provide a broader range of resources than the local phone book.
If theres no service available right in Sullivan County, theres a seven-county list of organizations for people to tap into.
Cellini said the operators are also kept abreast of the changes unique to Sullivan County life theyve been briefed, for example, on the needs of the summer community.
The Hasidic population, for example, brings new services into the county during summer (such as its own ambulance corps) which will be included in the database as seasonal.
The call center was still in the test phase when Hurricane Katrina hit last year, but it was able to serve as a resource for folks looking for places to make donations or volunteer.
Thats the advantage, Cellini said.
Its beneficial not only to people in need but people who are looking to help people, she said.
And its easy to remember! 2-1-1, she added.
To keep the service updated and open 24/7, Cellini said donations are crucial.
Checks earmarked 211 can be sent to the United Way of Sullivan County, P.O. Box 1036, Monticello, NY 12701.