211 is a support system for all human services

As a mother of two Jennifer Robinson is always on the lookout for what’s best for her family. Among her staple of resources is the 211 service, which opens a world of possibilities with a simple three-digit telephone call.

“I’ve called them a couple of times because they’re great, really nice people,” said the Collingwood woman. “I’ve called them for just businesses, the health unit, stuff like that.”

More recently Robinson was concerned about registering her son for school – 211 helped connect her to the two schools she was interested in talking to and the child is on the road to attending his first year in kindergarten this fall.

211 is a referral service available across Ontario, manned by trained and certified referral specialists. It’s their business to get you what you’re looking for. There are no electronic interruptions, when you phone, a human being answers the call.

That’s especially important to Louise, who also recently called the service.

“I have a mental illness so I have a hard time finding things in the phone book like regular people,” said the Wasaga Beach woman. “I do try to look things up if I can. Because it’s confidential you can call in and say: ‘This is what I’m going through right now, what would you suggest?’”

The referral specialist gently reached out to Louise during that first call and asked if she needed anything else, was she able to pay her bills?

From a service perspective, it’s something that the area really needed, said Dale Biddell, executive director of the Southern Georgian Bay United Way.

“211 provides a terrific group of referrals,” she said. “It keeps people from making umpteen phone calls.” For us, as an adjunct agency in the community, they’re absolutely serving a very important purpose.”

The point of 211 is to get people what they’re looking for, said Pam Hillier, executive director of Community Connection, the organization that runs the service. It could be something as simple as a phone number. Or it could be a basic need, like getting food on the table.

“We’re the number to call when you don’t know who to call,” she said. “We don’t give advice, we explain to the callers what services exist.”

That could include someone who has just lost their wallet and needs to replace their identification and credit cards. Or it could be a teenager who just discovered she’s pregnant and has no idea what services she’s going to need.

The service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the referral specialists have access to translation services in 150 languages through three-way calls.

Community Connection services east-central Ontario, covering a population of 1.2 million in eight counties.

While the caller is asked for no information, beyond their first name, their requests are tracked. This helps services in the community gauge the needs of their residents,” said Hillier.

“We track all the calls that come in and we report that back to the stakeholders,” she said. “It’s a support system for the whole human services.”

“It’s amazing what they have,” adds Louise. “They have these huge databanks, it’s really unlimited.”