CINCINNATI (Feb.15, 2023) – Jennifer Bieger still remembers some of the phone calls she answered at United Way of Greater Cincinnati 25 years ago.
A teenager seeking mental health services. A single mother desperately in need of diapers and baby formula. A military veteran struggling with the transition to civilian life.
Jennifer was a social worker newly hired as a United Way call specialist. For someone intent on helping a diverse array of people, "This," she recalled, "was a perfect fit."
It still is. In January 2023 she celebrated her 25-year anniversary with United Way, where she is Senior Manager of the United Way 211 Helpline. She describes it as "a critical gateway to get people connected to basic needs," including housing, utility assistance, food, health care and more. The 211 Helpline serves people in Adams, Brown, Clermont and Hamilton counties in Ohio; and Boone, Campbell, Grant and Kenton counties in Kentucky.
Another notable anniversary: Feb. 11, 2023, marked 20 years since the launch of the UWGC 211 Helpline.
Although a helpline existed before then, "211 was a game-changer," Jennifer said. By dialing three easy-to-remember numbers, callers were connected to a free, confidential service that was available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. "We wanted people to understand: We are here when you need us."
When UWGC's original Helpline began operation in 1976, the "database" of community resources was a Rolodex filled with file cards. Today, 211 care coordinators have access to a modern database that contains accurate, current and impactful information about thousands of local agencies, programs and services. Care coordinators discern a caller's needs and then connect that person to the appropriate resource.
People also can conduct their own online search of the database. An upgraded, easier-to-use version of that tool is coming soon.
Tabulating 211 calls provides United Way with real-time data on the community's needs. Such information helps United Way tailor its efforts to address gaps in services.
For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 211 pivoted quickly and become a one-stop shop for residents seeking information about testing, personal protective equipment, vaccinations, employment services, eviction assistance, food needs, mental health services and more.
For Chiquita Bond, who was temporarily jobless and worried about being evicted from her apartment, 211 was "the light at the end of the tunnel." A 211 care coordinator helped ensure her emergency rental assistance application was approved. "I'm so glad for 211. I appreciate you," Chiquita said.
People may call 211 with a short-term need, Jennifer said, "but we always (look at) community impact – what's the bigger picture? How do we (address) sustainable long-term change for individuals."
The UWGC 211 Helpline has received national accreditation status three consecutive times through the Alliance of Information and Referral Services. And it has solidified its reputation locally as the most comprehensive community resource.
At Hamilton County Job & Family Services, Lynne Riehle oversees a team helping residents who need rental and utility assistance. Often, though, residents have additional needs that JFS staff isn't equipped to handle. "We don't always know every resource," she said, so her team makes referrals to 211. "I know that 211 is going to take the time and really listen to what people need and get them to the right place. That's what 211 does."
Something else 211 does; or more specifically, what the 211 care coordinators do: demonstrate kindness and compassion.
"There is a live person on the other end of the phone," Jennifer said. "For some, it's probably the lowest point in their lives. It's an honor for us to be there for them."
United Way of Greater Cincinnati is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization [Tax ID: 31-0537502]. Contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.