211 South West: Help is just a phone call away

Looking for assistance, answers or access to community services can be a complicated and overwhelming task. Searching the Web might require you to dig through layers of pages; calling a phone number can bring dozens of automated menu options. Even the latest apps won’t do you much good if you’re not even sure where to start. But for residents of Windsor-Essex, all it takes is a single phone call – simply dial 211.

Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, a real person will answer the phone and point you in the right direction – for free. Trained operators can quickly guide you to one of the more than 56,000 agencies and services they keep in the database. And the service is now available to all residents of Ontario, making it the first province in Canada to achieve province-wide 211 service coverage.

“Learning that there’s someone there to speak to is comforting for callers,” says Operator Candice Fader, of Windsor. “They’re thankful to be speaking with someone who truly wants to help.”

Fader has worked as an Information and Referral Specialist since the 211 Southwest Call Centre first opened in Windsor in 2007. In that time, she and others in the same role have assisted callers seeking information on every topic imaginable:  from dog licenses to drivers’ licenses, from finding a food bank to finding a doctor.

The 211 Southwest Centre now serves residents from Windsor to Oxford County. Caller needs fall into several categories. In 2011, more than 10% of the Windsor-Essex area’s 34,000 callers were seeking community services. 211 callers also sought information on local events, long-term health care, EI, landlord and tenant issues, mental health concerns and emergency financial assistance. 211 will also follow up –with a caller’s permission – to ensure that their referral was the right direction to take. And when a caller may need additional assistance communicating with other agencies, 211 can act as an advocate or work with an advocate of the caller’s choosing.

Shelley Bernardon of Windsor needed to apply for a copy of her British Columbia birth certificate, but was getting nowhere on her own. “I’d called multiple numbers,” says Bernardon. “Each time I was given the wrong information or told I was calling the wrong place.” Searching online was also fruitless.

“I’d heard about 211 on television,” says Bernardon. “They gave me the correct information in a single phone call.” Not only that, someone from 211 called Bernardon back a day later, just to ensure she’d been given the correct information and that her problem had been resolved.

It’s not easy to ask for help. It’s even more difficult when you don’t know where to begin. “It’s very satisfying to know I’ve helped make someone’s day better, or even just given them a feeling of hope,” says Fader. “Often, all they (callers) need is the realization that others care and that they’re not alone.”

With a single phone call, all residents of Ontario can move closer to the help they need. “Just to feel like the person on the phone was listening, and was patient with me, made a difference,” says Bernardon. “And they got it right in one try. Next time, I won’t even bother running in circles – 211 will be my first call.”