Live United: 2-1-1 to bring another line of help to Freeborn County

Published 8:45 pm Friday, August 27, 2021

Live United by Erin Haag

I talk often about how our United Way is locally run, with local decisions and local impact. That’s absolutely all true, but maybe what I haven’t done so well is explain how we’re connected across the state and across the nation. Statewide, we have 35 United Ways. Greater Twin Cities United Way is the largest in the United State.

Erin Haag

This networking allows us to occasionally pull together resources to have a shared impact on our communities. One of those things is the United Way 2-1-1 Hotline.

During and post-War World II, the Veterans Information Center was so effective, there was a call to broaden the scope. In 1948, the Community Chest (the original name for United Ways) allocated funds for what would be the Community Information Center.

Today, the Community Information Center has evolved into 2-1-1, a hotline used in 90% of the United States. At the state level, the 2-1-1 Center is based at Greater Twin Cities United Way, with access to all languages and operating 24/7. The 2-1-1 Center also provides a central access point for the state’s rental assistance program, renthelpmn.org.

2-1-1 also is the centralized access point for the National Suicide Hotline for the eastern half of the state. This team of six people specifically trained to handle these particular situations handles 60 to 80 calls a day, providing a listening ear, creating safety plans and providing referrals.

Can you imagine my face when I learned all this? I was sitting in a Minneapolis conference room in January 2020, itching to get back into my office and learn more about what we were doing with 2-1-1 in Freeborn County. When I finally made it back, I learned that United Way of Freeborn County has been the only United Way in southeastern Minnesota that has not participated in 2-1-1. I haven’t dug into it on a broader scale than that, but I wonder if we’re the only ones not participating across the state. The infrastructure is still there, and people still called 2-1-1, perhaps knowing about it from a previous residence, or by word of mouth. In 2020, 492 people called 2-1-1 to get assistance.

I started investigating why UWFC wasn’t utilizing 2-1-1. There were various reasons, but a major change in the 2-1-1 call center in January 2020 solved most of the issues seen by previous leadership. So then what did we need to do to join in? Each local United way decides to utilize 2-1-1. Those who choose to participate contribute to it financially and then assists the call center by populating the list of resources and updating information. Then — build local community awareness. 

My first step was to bring it to the table of our various groups that meet. Each group agreed it would be a benefit to our community and supported pursuing it.

Then came the pandemic. Ultimately, we decided to pause the 2-1-1 work. The Fire Department set up their hotline for area needs and would contact me if it was outside of their scope. Together, we addressed community issues. It was the right decision to make, as 2-1-1 was quickly overwhelmed and had to readjust their staffing levels. They have recalibrated their department, and I anticipate that they’re stronger than ever after coming through that record breaking year that no one could anticipate. 

This summer, it was time to bring back the 2-1-1 work. The events of the pandemic showed that more than ever a hotline was needed. Social media shows people looking for resources, for support. The answers often include our social service agencies. However, our social service agencies are small, operating with a handful of people and with barriers of time and language, it can be difficult.

I’m so happy to report that the Kenneth Olson Foundation has awarded United Way of Freeborn County a grant to implement 2-1-1 in our county. This work has already started, with Nikolle leading the way. This fall, we’ll be working to update the resources, help agencies understand the benefits and working on marketing to spread awareness. By Feb. 11, 2022, we hope to have 2-1-1 fully operational in Freeborn County. It seems only appropriate to have a 2-1-1 day on 2-11.

I want to reassure our community that we’re not removing ourselves from the picture. The intent is to use 2-1-1 as another staff member. It’s the first line of defense, because they’re available. We’re here to support those that have trouble even after accessing 2-1-1.

I look forward to sharing the progress we’re making on 2-1-1. In the meantime, our phone number is 507-373-8670 if you or someone you know needs resources.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.