Colder winter increased calls to 211 from residents seeking utility assistanceMECOSTA COUNTY — Although each call is different if 211 didn't exist, many residents would have nowhere to turn for help. From December to February, 211 call specialists fielded more than 500 calls from residents between Mecosta and Osceola counties. This community-wide resource call center is seeing slightly higher numbers of calls from Mecosta and Osceola counties than last year. From December 2012 to February 2013, a total of 440 calls came in requesting assistance, compared to the 504 calls from December 2013 to February 2014. Many of the calls center around finding the right agency for assistance, said Stacey Hachmann-Gomez CALL 211 Resource Manager. “Request for basic needs tend to bring the highest amount of calls,” Hachmann-Gomez said. “You get those callers who are really in need of assistance and you can hear it in their voice. This winter hit many residents hard.” The 211 center received more than 11,000 calls for help from December to February for the counties it represents. For Mecosta and Osceola counties, the increase was an average of 10 more calls per month. Regional call centers make it possible for people in need to navigate the complex and ever-growing maze of human service agencies and programs by offering personal contact with a certified call specialist who can provide information, answer questions, and help solve the caller's problem. This region of 211 serves residents in Mecosta, Osceola, Lake, Newaygo, Oceana and Mason counties. Each county’s local United Way is assigned a portion of the total cost based on each county’s population and usage, said Tom Hogenson, Mecosta-Osceola United Way board member. "It is obvious this resource is being utilized," Hogenson said. "Calling 211 gives people a way to find the right agency for their specific need. Calling 211 could be a lifesaver for them." The 211 program’s total budget for 2013-14 is $86,500, with Mecosta County’s share set at $19,807. Although Mecosta County Commissioners were initially resistant to approving funding for 211 and questioned its local impact for the county, in November they approved allocating $3,000 to the United Way of Mason County for 211 services for 2014. “Mecosta County generally has a higher call volume than Osceola,” Hachmann-Gomez said. “A lot of calls are phoned in from folks needing help covering their heat bills. Maybe they’ve run into health issues in their family or loss of a job and they are looking for some help with their bills." This should be looked at as an investment for the county, Hogenson said. "The number of calls to 211 is slightly higher in Mecosta County compared to the other counties," Hogenson said. "By investing in 211 as a resource, agencies that are set up to provide assistance to people can reach them easier than having a person or family seek help on their own." The United Way of America is a major proponent of 211. Thousands of agencies partner with the United Way to provide assistance. Finding the right agency to help a specific callers is in the hands of the 211 call specialist. “The needs range from food assistance to help in finding services for health care,” Hachmann-Gomez said. “Right now, a really popular call is helping with taxes. There are free tax services available to people.” As further evidence of the tough times in the county, there also has been a boost in people calling 211 looking for a hot meal. “The number of food and hot meal requests are almost equal to calls for utility assistance,” Hachmann-Gomez said. “We get requests to find out where food pantries are or where the congregate meal centers are at.” Manna Food Pantry and Project Starburst in Big Rapids have received referrals from 211. Project Starburst is providing food assistance to an average of 350 families per month, said Diane Long, pantry executive director. “These numbers have remained the same most the winter,” Long said. “We have also seen a major increase for utility assistance.” Project Starburst helps residents who need help paying for heating through its THAW utility assistance program, but with this year's harsher winter, funding is low. “We cannot accept new clients for that program at this time,” Long said. “The cost of propane took a toll on the program.” When people come in seeking assistance at Project Starburst and the facility cannot provide that assistance, Long and the volunteers at Project Starburst give them the one phone number who may help. “We have them call 211,” Long said. “I can’t recommend the number enough to those seeking assistance. Using 211 is such an important resource. They have knowledge of agencies we might not know of.” Volunteers at Manna Food Pantry agree that calling 211 is a resource that has a number of agencies people can be referred to if they need assistance. “When people come in who are referred to us we tell them they can call 211 for needs we don’t provide,” said volunteer Mary Clark. “We have a big poster with the 211 number on it at our reception desk.” To learn more about Michigan 211 and the Michigan Association of United Ways visit uwmich.org or see the United Way’s public policy work around 211 visit national.unitedway.org.