211 Dufferin Peel: Dial 211 because help is just a phone call away

Reaching out for help is difficult and no one knows this better than 211 Dufferin-Peel, a little-known information and referral service that offers help to those who don’t know where to turn.

211 Dufferin-Peel is a free and confidential telephone-based, one-stop shop that helps people sift through the wide assortment of human and social services offered by non-profits, community agencies and governments.

“If I could tell our community just one thing, it would be to tell those who are in need that there is help – and it’s just a phone call away,” says Rebecca Cowell, a 211 database coordinator and former information and referral specialist. “211 is all about empowerment and providing information to make informed choices.”

Phone calls to 211 are fielded by certified information and referral (I and R) specialists who undergo thorough training in order to dispense information and make referrals to more than 56,000 programs and services across Ontario that may provide the answer a client is looking for.

211 phone counsellors handle many routine questions about flu shots and where to apply for a passport. Its mandate is immense.

Need some help getting settled into Canada?  Call 211.

You don’t know where to turn now that your last EI cheque has arrived? Call 211.

You’re looking for a support group to discuss your child’s disabilities. Call 211.

Counsellors work the telephones 24-7 from the Regional Municipality of Peel call centre offices in Brampton.   The service is available for callers in 150 languages.

“Many resist reaching out for help because they fear that there’s a stigma attached to the struggles they face: abuse, mental health illness, poverty and homelessness – to name a few,” says Cowell. “I hope this fear doesn’t become a barrier and that callers come to trust our staff to provide assistance that’s accepting and judgement-free.”

Often callers call in with one concern, which ultimately leads to quite another matter or an issue that’s much more complex than why the caller initially sought help. Because people have such difficulty asking for help, I and R specialists are trained to read between the lines, to ask the right questions to draw out the answers that will reveal other issues, says Cowell.

A Peel region resident called Cowell to ask for information about a program in which seniors were granted financial assistance to help maintain their homes. By digging a little deeper, Cowell learned that for three years, the woman and her husband had lived with a leaky roof and no heat thanks to a broken-down furnace. She managed to find them a shelter they could live in while their house was being repaired.

“They didn’t know that they didn’t have to live like that,” Cowell says. “People call for one specific thing and, if you’re skilled to ask the right questions, you’ll find there is often more than one thing going on and that you can work to get them assistance.”

Although Peel region and Dufferin county boast a large number of community resources available to people in need, Cowell is still surprised that many residents don’t know there’s help available, even for the most basic human requirements.

“It still shocks me to find that when people call looking for help that they had no idea that food banks, financial support and shelter even exist.”

211 was launched in Peel in 2007. The County of Dufferin, which includes Orangeville and Shelburne, was added to the service last year.

As of 2011, 211 is now available to every resident across Ontario. More than 60 per cent of the Canadian population has access to a 211 service as 211 works towards nation-wide coverage.