United Way 2-1-1 is a free, 24/7, 365-day information and referral resource that connects residents in Lucas, Wood and Ottawa County to various health and human services. It acts as a point of entry for people to get connected to basic needs like food, shelter, and utility assistance, as well as child care, mental health and addiction services, job-finding resources and volunteer opportunities.
Recently, an excellent question was posed to us by someone who had just learned about the service. Instead of using 2-1-1, why not just use Google to find this kind of information?
I thought about a project I had undertaken in my previous role as the director of a hunger-focused nonprofit. In an attempt to better understand the needs of my food pantry patrons and how they were reaching us, I put myself in their shoes. I thought, “if I didn’t know about 2-1-1 and I was trying to figure out how to get food, what would I do?”
So, I hopped on google and started searching: “food pantry near me,” “free food toledo,” “toledo meals,” “how to get free groceries,” “where to go to get food.” Do you know what came up? About 9 million hits.
Next, I start working through the list, looking at all of the different agencies that came up: food banks who I knew did not provide direct service to clients, service providers who were not even located in Toledo, outdated information on times of service or pantries that I knew hadn’t been active in years. And then, I start thinking about other things I know to be real barriers to people getting the help they need:
- Which of these are nonprofits who only serve people from the zip code they’re located in?
- Which pantries are located on a bus route if I don’t have a car?
- Which churches have a ramp to get into the building if I’m in a wheelchair?
- Which providers require a social security card to get service if I don’t have one?
And most importantly, how am I going to best solve this problem if I skipped breakfast this morning because there’s no food in the house, and I’m worried about what my kids are going to eat when they come home from school?
One can imagine the feeling of being overwhelmed, or frustrated, or even that your situation is insurmountable in times of urgency, or confusion, of panic.
This is the reality that oftentimes is forgotten when we’re talking about people in need: whether they’re living in poverty, they just lost a job, or they’re suddenly in medical debt… when you find yourself in a position where you need a little help to get through, it’s probably not isolated to one need. People are living complex and multifaceted lives.
This is why 2-1-1 is not google. 2-1-1 is a local person talking to a member of their community with a database of information at their disposal to help find which resources fit best. The Community Resource Advisor is having a conversation about all the things an individual needs to know to get help from all of the incredible service providers in our community.
But, the strength of 2-1-1 is predicated upon our agreement as a community, that this is the place where we hold the collective information about all of the resources we have to take care of people. 2-1-1 should be something we value in the community for a person to be able to call or text, for a case manager to be able search through an updated database, for anyone to be able to easily reach.
In order to do this we need to make sure our local agencies register their services with 2-1-1, we need to tell our new and emerging nonprofits to get listed and make sure their programs are accessible to the community, we need to refer people we know and work with to 2-1-1. When this happens, we become a community with an effective, single-point of entry for individuals who need help navigating the health and human service landscape for themselves or someone they know.
Discover what 2-1-1 can mean to someone by watching our new video here.