Howard Long sees a new hotline simplifying life for his employees and making it better for local residents.
At the Bellefonte branch of the YMCA of Centre County, where Long is the executive director, front desk staff often field questions from people seeking local services.
Some, such as affordable child care, the YMCA provides. For those it doesnt, staff members do the best they can to help.
And that can be difficult and time-consuming.
I cant expect my front desk person to have a master list of all the programs and services offered in the community, Long said.
After Tuesday, it will no longer be a problem.
YMCA staff can suggest people dial 2-1-1 a statewide information and referral line with an extensive database of local human services and charitable organizations to connect callers to the appropriate resources.
Push three numbers and youre going to have the answer, Long said. I think its a great thing for Centre County.
Tuesday marks the official start of the regional call center at the Community Help Centre in State College. Its information specialists will serve PA 2-1-1s Central Region, a 16-county territory and one of seven 2-1-1 regions across the state.
The launch of PA 2-1-1, which has occurred in stages this year, represents the culmination of a decade-long effort to bring the free service to Pennsylvania. Introduced in Atlanta in 1997, its now in all 50 states, covering about 87 percent of the nations population.
In 2010, a $225,000 matching grant by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation provided the catalyst for the Central Region service and the Community Help Centre call center. Once the Centre Foundation administered the grant, the Centre County United Way worked with United Way chapters and service agencies in other counties to raise more funds and build a regional 2-1-1 resource database.
From that, hotline operators can offer a range of assistance for callers in their areas. Help could take the form of finding resources for basic human needs and physical and mental health, or directing callers to employment support; aid for children, women and families; and volunteer and charitable donation opportunities.
Bonnie Tatterson, director of the Community Help Centre, said the database took time to compile because she and other 2-1-1 organizers wanted the most complete and
accurate inventory of resources possible down to tiny food pantries and church groups.
There are a lot of community initiatives that really arent on the radar of the government, she said. So we wanted to make sure we reached out to those people and see if they wanted to be part of 2-1-1.
When calls come in, operators will see the callers county on their computers. Then theyll know which lists to access. Tatterson said the 2-1-1 service is for information and referral only, not for crisis counseling.
If youre looking for somebody to talk to, thats a counseling call, she said. 2-1-1 really doesnt specialize in that.
Though Tuesday will be the Central Regions grand launch, the Community Help Centres call center has been operating on a limited basis since the spring.
Tatterson characterized the initial call volume as consistent 80 calls in May, for example. She said when a Harrisburg telethon mentioned 2-1-1 recently, the Capital Regions call center received 77 calls in two days.
So the potential is enormous, but people have just got to get used to it, Tatterson said.
The 2-1-1 service could reduce expenses for government and nonprofit service providers in the long run, said Tammy Gentzel, the Centre County United Way director and a PA 2-1-1 board member.
People who need help are going to find it quickly, and that means theyre going to get that help before their needs turn into a full-blown crisis, Gentzel said.
Secondly, agencies and organizations will no longer have to devote time and resources to tracking down services they do not provide. Instead, Gentzel said, they can refer callers to 2-1- 1 for quicker service.
Brent Frank, the regional manager for Mid-Penn Legal Services, likes that aspect.
Often times when were talking to clients about their legal needs, there are a lot of ancillary needs they have, said Frank, whose service area includes Centre County. We can just tell them to call 2-1-1.
While 2-1-1 could save money for organizations, he said, the true value will be how easily people can find help.
From a clients perspective, I see them as having the ability to do one-stop shopping and being able to call one number and find whatever resources they need in the community including legal services, he said.
Ann Walker, director of the Child Development and Family Council of Centre County, said 2-1-1 has been a long time coming in Pennsylvania as a counterpart to 9-1-1 for emergencies.
Human services needs can be a crisis as well, she said. This gives us an opportunity to have a hotline dedicated to helping people in those situations with those types of needs.
After this year, Gentzel said, the statewide 2-1-1 system will face a funding challenge. She said the PA 2-1-1 board and the United Way of Pennsylvania are working on drafting grant applications, as well as persuading state legislators and the governor that the service is worth supporting.
In addition to securing public money, 2-1-1 organizers hope to bring utility companies on board, Gentzel said. She thinks 2- 1-1 will appeal to companies, which could save by letting the hotline take over the task of finding heating-assistance programs for customers.
It truly would become a public-private partnership to keep 2-1-1 going long-term, Gentzel said.
For now, though, Gentzel has her eyes squarely on the launch.
Im absolutely thrilled, she said. I hope is that everything goes without a hitch and all the technology works as its designed to, and people can call and walk away satisfied with the services they got.
Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620. Follow him on Twitter @CRosenblumNews