211 Central: 211 combats misinformation and too much information

It’s not like she hadn’t asked for help. At 53, Sandra had endured years of struggle. A long-time sufferer of fibromalgia, and the single mother of an autistic boy who had been molested by a trusted, family friend, the once-spirited Toronto-native knew that guilt and grief were consuming her – and that chronic pain and financial hardship were gnawing away at what was leftover. And so, like many people besieged by difficulties, she tried to reach out. She made countless calls, she searched the Internet, she asked friends and strangers for advice, but misinformation, lack of information or too much information defeated her. Instead of finding help, one afternoon in the middle of January, she found herself unable to get out of bed.

“I had my phone with me,” she recalls. “And I remember thinking, this will be my last call. ”

She dialed 2-1-1.

A real person answered. Ekaterina, a 23-year-old Information and Referral Specialist, is fluent in English, French and Russian. She spends her days at the call-centre located in downtown Toronto, navigating her way through their vast database, talking to folks from all walks of life, seeking all manner of help. The nature of requests varies daily and often changes with the time of the month or the time of year. Tax-time, Christmas holidays, the dreary months of winter, and so on each create a unique set of challenges. And while some callers are simply looking for a number, others are looking for a way out of their despair.

“Sandra was very distressed,” Ekaterina says. “She was so upset she didn’t know what she was looking for.”

With seven months on the job under her belt, and backed by an education in family and community social services, Ekaterina knew she had to get as much information as possible from Sandra in order to assist her properly. Training, experience and instincts kicked in; she asked questions, listened intently and responded compassionately. An hour-long conversation later, and Ekaterina was able to provide contact information for two agencies tailored to Sandra and her son’s needs.

“By encouraging people to let it all out, it helps them relieve some stress and gives me a better idea of what we were dealing with,” Ekaterina explains. “Getting them to share their story helps them and it helps me.”

For Sandra, the call changed her life. Although she found the sourcing of appropriate numbers was in itself a great relief, it was the human connection that had such an impact.

“She really listened to what I had to say, what I needed, how I felt. She told me she knew of others who had similar problems. Most importantly, she told me to be strong, that I was on the right path, that I could get through this.”

Sandra says too that she has listened to the advice Ekaterina offered.

“She made suggestions such as making a list of priorities and journaling, both of which have helped me.”

Today, Sandra is in the process of working with Child Advocacy and CAMH, the agencies the 211 I&R Specialist recommended. Although she and her son haven’t yet become fully immersed in their programs, just knowing things are in place fills her with optimism. Once an established singer and songwriter, Sandra’s illness, her son’s special needs, and the terrible thing that happened to him, have taken a toll on her career. But no longer her dreams. She is currently working from home and rediscovering her music.

Asked if she would recommend 211, she quickly answers yes.

“It’s available 24/7 so you can call anytime, the middle of the night if that’s when you really need to talk to someone. It’s not just the information they give you that is helpful, it’s that when someone gives you information from a good place, you’re more apt to be stronger and more focused so you actually go and get that help. The young woman who answered my call that day turned things around for me.”