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2-1-1 holding awareness day today

By Staff
Kim West
Most people know they can dial 9-1-1 for a medical emergency or to report a crime, or that 4-1-1 is the number to call for a phone number or an address.
But the general public might not be aware that there is also a 2-1-1 social services hotline for anything from not being able to pay a utility bill or needing legal services to wanting to volunteer or locate a wellness program.
The 2-1-1 hotline was first introduced in the U.S. in 1997, and 2-1-1 Connects Alabama was founded in 2002. The Alabama hotline is provided by a network of regional call centers whose mission is provide easy access to health and human services to all state residents.
The free service has been available to Colbert, Franklin, Lauderdale and Marion counties through a partnership formed last year by United Way of the Shoals and the Shoals Family Success Center, which are both based in the Brandon Ministry Building in Florence.
"This is a resource, and it's basically one phone number you can call for a lot of different needs," said Melanie Orseske, a SFSC board member and public relations chair. "Instead of going from one agency to another, you can call 2-1-1, and the 2-1-1 specialist will be able to direct you to an agency.
"People in dire need don't have the time or gas to go around and try to find the help they need."
The 2-1-1 network in Alabama includes a database with nearly 1,000 social services agencies, and the hotline is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Orseske said the program's main purpose is to refer people to an agency that is best suited to assist them with their questions or needs.
"2-1-1 has been in the state for a year and a half, and it's been (in the Shoals area) since late 2007, but we weren't fully operational until five or six months ago," Orseske said. "Now it's a database system with 958 agencies, and it has people trained to assess the needs of the people who call in and ask questions and then direct them, but we don't guarantee anything other than we'll try to get you to the appropriate agency to get you help."
Orseske said 2-1-1 keeps the 9-1-1 system from being overloaded, and it can also assist other states' networks during a disaster. Last August, Alabama's 2-1-1 program handled Louisiana's calls for information about shelter and other storm resource locations after Hurricane Gustav ripped through the Bayou State.
"(2-1-1) is kind of like a well-kept secret – people know about it, but don't know what it is," she said. "We want more people to know about it because if there's a regional disaster, this is an important number."
Today marks the first public awareness day for the local hotline, which has received 35 calls from Franklin County and 854 total since Jan. 1, 2008, according to NaKisha Martin, 2-1-1 call coordinator at the Shoals Family Success Center. Nationally, 2-11 networks reach over 232 million people, or more than 78 percent of the U.S. population.
Orseske said there is an increasing need for government funding for 2-1-1 since donations to non-profit agencies have decreased because of the slumping economy.
"Today administrators from all the 2-1-1 facilities throughout the state are going to Montgomery to speak to legislators to get funding for the 2-1-1 system," she said. "We don't get government funding, but (former U.S. Sen.) Hillary Rodham Clinton re-introduced a bill to fund the systems before she was nominated for Secretary of State.
"We are in need of (federal or state) funding because non-profits are the first to lose funding during these times."
The 2-1-1 help line can be dialed directly from any land-line telephone. To reach the network by cell phone, call (866) 869-4921. For more information about services referred by 2-1-1 visit www.211connectsalabama.org.