February 11th is 2-1-1 day. It’s a day to raise awareness about the phone hotline, 2-1-1, that can connect anyone that needs help to a local information and referral service for personal or disaster needs.
“In the past we’ve had a 10 digit number. You know everybody had to remember 570, seven digits after that.Now all you have to remember is three numbers,” Tom Foley, Director of Health Plan Services, said.
2-1-1 is a national hotline to help those in need, but Gert McGowan, CEO of Family Service Association of Northeastern Pennsylvania, says the need for such a hotline hits close to home.
“It’s really important. Over 70 percent of individuals who use our services are at or below poverty level. So the more we raise awareness of 211 the more we can reach individuals in their time of need,” McGowan said.
In 2019, the 2-11 call center received almost 30,000 calls and met 38,000 needs. 40 percent of the callers were from Luzerne County, 17 percent from Lackawanna County, and 11 percent from Monroe County. The call center helps people dealing with a variety of issues.
“We have a variety of issues. We could have someone who is in crisis mode, so they’re thinking of committing suicide. But we can also have individuals who need direction somewhere, or the more serious human services needs like utility assistance, rent assistance, food pantries to feed their family,” McGowan said.
The 2-1-1 call center covers 17 counties in northeastern pennsylvania. McGowan says almost three fourths of the callers are female.
“But surprisingly and as traditional as it sounds, that’s really the statistic year after year. In the role of women as caretakers for themselves, for their families, for their children,” she said.
When 2-1-1 first started in Northeastern Pennsylvania in 1972, it was an after hours service called Healthline. Foley says there was a great need for help in the community after the Agnes flood.
“Pretty much wiped out the Wyoming Valley and a good portion of areas along the river. And the people who were board members at family service association, our parent organization, decided that you know all these programs started within the region and nobody knew how to contact anything,” Foley said.
The new 2-1-1 call center is in Pittston Township. The old hub was in downtown Wilkes-Barre. Foley tells me that they needed more space but also the being in higher ground is an added bonus to avoid evacuation.
The old location was flooded 4 times in the last 20 years. Foley says it took a lot of work to move both the phones and the staff.
“Being a 24/7 operation, being a hundred yards from the river it was no fun to evacuate and move to a different location,” Foley said.
The 2-1-1 call center has 9 people staffed full time. Foley says they get about 200 calls a day. He advises people to call as soon as they feel like they need help.
“It’s much easier to call me up a week before your power is going to be shut off as opposed to calling us the day that the utility is on your way to your house to shut it off. So you know, try not to wait until the last minute,” he said.
“I would encourage anyone who needs assistance to either call us at 2-1-1, to text us 898211 and supply a zip code, or go on to nepa211.Org and you can get the assistance that you need,” McGowan said.