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From health to housing, 211 connects callers to necessary services within their communities

ROCHESTER, Minn. (FOX47) — When she was working as a lawyer, Virginia Merritt provided legal aid to a woman who was the victim of domestic violence. The woman was from out of town, and had found herself and her child in Rochester.

While Merritt was doing her best to help with the case, there were some questions she could not answer. Most pressingly, the woman was diabetic and had run out of insulin and test strips.

Merritt didn’t know what resources in the community to direct her client to. But she did know who to call. The two sat down together, put the phone on speaker and called 211. Immediately, a call specialist helped her set up an appointment at the Salvation Army’s clinic.

“I don’t know of any other resource where whatever you need, you can call and ask and you’re going to talk to a knowledgeable person,” said Merritt, who is now is now the Executive Director at Channel One Regional Food Bank. She now refers clients to 211 when they come to Channel One with needs that go beyond food security.

For some situations, a Google search just won’t cut it. The 211 helpline was created by United Way to connect callers to services within their communities.

The service first began operating in Minnesota in 2002, according to Grace Pesch, the Impact Program Manager at United Way of Olmsted County.

Pesch said the most common need callers reach out for in Olmsted County is housing, and the most common question is about rent assistance programs. However, people can call about a variety of issues including mental health services, tax services, employment, food and more. The service is available 24/7 and in multiple languages, she added.

When you call 211, the first question you’re asked is where you’re located or where you’re looking for services, Pesch said. From there, the specialist asks what they can do to help you. Then you work on problem-solving together.

“They’re also just a real person so if you’re in a really difficult situation it’s nice to know that there’s someone that you can actually talk to and that understands,” Pesch said.

Merritt said she thinks sometimes it can be beneficial to troubleshoot with another person, rather than searching for solutions to an issue online.

Jenny Cordry, the Director of Operations at Christ United Methodist Church, said the church had initially been referring people to resources in the community on a word-of-mouth basis from other churches.

She said the first time she heard about it, she called the number to make sure it was real.

“I couldn’t believe that someone actually answered and that it was a real service,” she said. “I think it’s such a blessing that the city of Rochester has this service available.”

Cordry recalled one instance where she referred a woman to 211 who had several young children and was getting food from the church’s food shelf. The woman asked Cordry how she could get assistance signing her children up for school. After calling 211, she was able to get more clothing for her children and a caseworker.

“It’s such an easy way to get people the help that they need,” Cordry said.

Pesch said it’s important that organizations keep their information up to date with 211 so the specialists can provide accurate information to callers.

“The thing about 211 is that it’s really a community resource and it’s on all of us in our community to make sure that this is a viable service,” Pesch said.

She added that the service can be especially beneficial to callers who are experiencing multiple issues at once.

“It’s nice to talk to someone that can be reassuring and calming,” she said.

Cordry said it gives her comfort knowing that going into the winter, there is a hub for services in the community.

“I guess my last comment would be that it feels good even when we can’t do anything for a person, to know that someone can,” Cordry said.

Nicole Valinote

Social Media and Digital Content Manager

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