OP-ED: Call 211 for info and referral with a human touch

York Dispatch

With multimedia communication and access to infinite information with a mere tap on a screen, why should York residents pick up the phone and dial 2-1-1? The answer: for information and referral with a human touch.

Since 1984, FIRST (Free Information and Referral System Teleline), was the go-to contact for York residents in need of help. This United Way program linked callers with the appropriate agency or service in York County best equipped to alleviate their need. In 2013, PA 2-1-1 replaced FIRST, continuing the mission of providing these resources.

In the south-central Pennsylvania region, PA 2-1-1 is administered by CONTACT Helpline and serves York County as well as 10 other nearby counties. Helpline volunteers have answered calls 24/7, 365 days a year for 45 years. CONTACT Helpline supplies comprehensive information and referral, as well as active listening for emotional support.

A searchable 2-1-1 online database of information is also available at While this is convenient for some, simply dialing 2-1-1 offers the advantage of speaking with a live volunteer who can respond personally to your request. As a CONTACT/PA 2-1-1 volunteer for 17 years, I have witnessed how having someone to listen to your concerns, without bias or judgment, can make the difference between coping or giving up when life's challenges seem overwhelming.

Calls are free and confidential; volunteers will only ask for your ZIP code, which is required by the counties that fund a portion of our services. We are not counselors and will not give advice. However, we are highly trained in active listening and skilled in the use of a vast database of resources for a variety of needs. We put callers in touch with agencies that assist with basics like food, shelter, rent, utilities or health care, as well as mental or emotional support. Translation is provided for all languages, and services for the deaf and hearing impaired through the PA relay service.

PA 2-1-1 is ready to assist with problems or questions that range from simple to urgent. A stray dog running loose, a temporary loan of a wheelchair, an elderly neighbor who needs help with meals or a parent whose child is suicidal or addicted to drugs are just some of the many different concerns we address. Unfortunately, while there are thousands of nonprofit and government agencies, clubs, organizations and support groups in our database, limited funding or resources sometimes means that there may not be an answer. I recently spent quite a while searching for a resource for one caller's very specific need. I was unable to find anything appropriate, but she thanked me for taking the time to listen and try to help. She was grateful to be treated with compassion during a difficult time.

A York helpline specialist, who has been a staff member of FIRST and PA 2-1-1 since 1999, says she "loves her work, especially knowing that people only need to call a number to hear a friendly voice offering help ..."

Indeed, in this time of depersonalized communications, CONTACT Helpline/PA 2-1-1 provides what our motto states, "someone to listen, someone to care." More than ever, our dedicated staff and volunteers seek ways to keep PA 2-1-1 viable in the community in spite of many challenges.

While more than 1,200 volunteers have made a difference on the Helpline at some point since 1970, CONTACT struggles to find new volunteers to answer the phones. Training classes of 20 were once a norm; today it is challenging to field and keep a class of five. As the volunteer base decreases, total call volume has increased 5 percent to 10 percent annually over the last five years. State funding for nonprofit organizations like CONTACT/PA 2-1-1 is difficult or impossible to secure and maintain. (The state has yet to allocate any funds for the operation of PA 2-1-1 lines throughout PA.) CONTACT Helpline/PA 2-1-1 works tirelessly to obtain its piece of the private donations pie, but still has limited funds to advertise its services to the public. Thus, it remains one of the community's best-kept secrets.

At this moment, someone at CONTACT Helpline/PA 2-1-1 is there to listen and provide information and referral, but more volunteers and funding are needed to make sure that, whenever someone reaches out for help, their call will never go unanswered.

For more information about PA 2-1-1 and CONTACT Helpline, please go to our website at contacthelpline.square

The next volunteer training class begins in September. Please call (717) 652-4987 with questions about volunteer opportunities.

— Linda Hunter, of Mechanicsburg, is a longtime volunteer for CONTACT Helpline, the nonprofit organization that administers PA 2-1-1 in south-central Pennsylvania.