When 200 callers a day need help, and don’t know where to turn they dial 211

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To read more stories of gratitude go here

By the time Amanda Hawk entered the Santa Rosa pharmacy, she was in tears. She and her four sick children had just fled the home they feared was poisoning them and checked into a hotel.

“We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs,” she recalled of that day in February 2016. Hawk was confused and didn’t know where to turn.

Noticing her distress, another woman calmly told her, “You need to call 211.”

Hawk did just that, and thus began a multiyear effort to put her family’s life back together.

“There were clothes delivered to our door the next day,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe the array of help we were given.”

The information referral specialist at 211 Sonoma County put Hawk in touch with environmental health consultants and later helped her family secure a safe rental home, new furnishings and more while her children were receiving medical evaluation and treatment. Whenever Hawk had a question, 211 was there to help.

“They’re like an information superhighway,” Hawk said. “They’re connected to everybody. You dial a number, and it’s life-changing.”

She says she’ll be forever grateful for the support and guidance she received at a very difficult time in her life: “How do you ever repay people for what they have given you?”

Hawk’s experience with 211 is pretty typical, says 211 Sonoma County director Bonifacio Torres. Part of a nationwide network, the local 211 service has been helping area residents for nine years, connecting people to nonemergency health and human services resources. The organization, a program of the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, also maintains a website (211sonoma.org) that lists numerous places to seek help.

“The mission of 211 is to connect people with agencies,” Torres said. “We average 100 to 200 calls a day.”

Callers range from someone simply looking for a local food pantry to women seeking to escape domestic violence.

“We do an assessment to find out if they need other assistance,” Torres said. “We call them and we continue their cases.” In the case of domestic violence victims, “they’re facing being on the street with no income. When they call you, they’ve already been abused one too many times.”

Such was the case with Ivette Lopez. Seeking to escape an abusive relationship, she called 211 in 2014.

“I needed to get some advocacy and some help,” she recalled. “I didn’t know how to proceed. So I reached out to 211. If I had not done that, I don’t know what would have happened. I was at the end of my rope.”

The service steered her toward legal aid, and the 211 employees stuck with her. “They kept calling back. There was a lot of care. That’s when I fell in love with 211.”

After Lopez’s life got back on track with continuing help from 211, she decided to return the favor. She trained to become an information referral specialist and she now works full-time at 211.

“I get to put my personal experience to use,” she said.

Along the way, she has learned that providing assistance to others doesn’t just benefit them: “Help other people, because in the end you’re helping yourself.”

To read more stories of gratitude go here

Lopez and four other full-time employees field phone calls from local citizens around the clock. Bilingual help is available, and they have access to assistance in 27 different languages. Callers are connected with free and low-cost services offered by nonprofit, government and faith-based groups. The organization also partners with the local Emergency Operations Center, the Public Information Office, the Red Cross and law enforcement.

“We’re very well-connected with law enforcement and nonprofits,” Torres said.

After the 2017 wildfires, calls spiked. Local residents called looking for shelters, masks, food, donations and missing people. “211 was one of the major communications during the fires,” Torres said. “Over 7,000 calls were related to the fires.”

During nonemergencies, the service also can help clients apply over the phone for Cal Fresh food benefits. And they provide free income tax preparation to low-income families through the Earn It! Keep It! Save It! (EKS) program.

Torres isn’t surprised when people tell him they’ve never heard of 211. “We have a lot of work to do,” he said of continuing efforts to publicize the service. “But it took 20 years for 911 to be well-known.”

His current goal is to increase interaction between 211 Sonoma and elected officials in the county: “I want key leaders — supervisors, mayors, etc. — to be more involved and help 211.”

Getting the word out about 211 Sonoma will only benefit Sonoma County residents, Torres said. “We’re eager to help. We’re making a difference. I really enjoy working here.”

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