The caller dialed 211. He was trying to find some legal assistance. It turns out that he needed much more. In the initial demographic questions to the caller, the 211 specialist discovered he was a veteran. So she transferred his call to a veterans specialist, who himself had served in the Marines.

During the course of the call, the specialist learned that this gentleman had lost several of his close military buddies to suicide over the past year or so. He didn’t just need legal assistance. He was struggling with his own mental health. The 211 employee not only found him a free legal clinic, but also did a direct transfer of the call to a veterans suicide hotline. Later that day, a call to the 211 specialist indicated that the hotline connectors had saved a life that day.

Ella Mitchell, United Way of Northern Utah’s 211 manager at the time of this incident, tells us that “while every call may not be this dramatic, every call connects people to the help they need for their wellbeing and sustainability.”

The United Way Worldwide 211 Network director, Joshua Pedersen, said this local story relayed by Mitchell is a great illustration of just how thoroughly 211 can help.

“We do more than ‘patch people through’ to agencies,” he said. “Instead, 211 specialists are trained to identify root causes of a client’s problem and connect them with a wide range of available resources that meet all the underlying needs, not just the one that prompted the call, text or email.”

Pedersen is recognized as the “father” of 211 in Utah. And he led the effort to connect United Way of Northern Utah with United Way of Salt Lake and United Way of Utah County in an efficient, cooperative network that is funded by a combination of private donations and funding from the Utah State Legislature.

Tim Jackson, president and CEO of United Way of Northern Utah, reports that the local 211 staff helps people find services they might not even have heard about. It’s also a great channel for volunteers to find organizations and causes where they can help.

The 211 service is critical for the citizens who initiate the 14 million calls, texts, chats and emails annually to get access to free and confidential crisis and emergency counseling, disaster assistance, food, health care, insurance assistance, stable housing, utility payment assistance, employment services, veteran services, childcare and family services.

“It’s not just a phone number,” said John Ohanian, CEO of 211 San Diego. “We’re assessing risk and vulnerability — whether it’s food insecurity or housing or any of those things that basically allow people to live life.”

According to Pedersen, the 211 program is part of United Way’s efforts to build stronger communities and fight for the health, educational and financial stability of every person in every community. It makes the social services ecosystem/network more efficient by ensuring people in need are connected to agencies that can help.

Over 95% of America’s communities are now covered with 211 services. Most of them are sustained by one of the country’s 1,100 local United Ways.

United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta organized the first 211 service in 1997. Soon thereafter, United Way of America (now UWW), in cooperation with the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, assisted other local United Ways in their efforts to connect people with human service providers, following the Atlanta model. In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission dedicated the 211 number for that purpose.

Since then, the service has been recognized as a critical connector for those who need help and those who want to give help. People who wish to volunteer in any number of ways may call 211 to find opportunities.

Beyond United Way and private donors, local governments are also primary funders of 211 centers, according to Pedersen.

“Each 211 is managed independently — it’s very community-based, just as in the communities of Utah,” he said. “There isn’t a 211 in every separate county so they might be region-based, which makes for efficiency but still addresses the local needs of the area.”

One thing is certain: 211 is of immeasurable benefit to millions of people in thousands of communities across America, and right here in Northern Utah, through its ability to connect individuals and families with the resources they need to help them build a better life.

Robert A. Hunter is director of The Olene S. Walker Institute of Politics and Public Service at Weber State University where he also teaches Leadership and Political Life. He may be contacted at rhunter@weber.edu.

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