The 411 on 2-1-1

The United Way of Allen County provides a free access line to health and human service information and referrals – for anyone, at any time, for any reason.
2/5/2018
Deborah C. Gerbers
Steve Vorderman

In the 1980s, 2-1-1 was called ‘Switchboard’ and served as a help line for runaway teens and individuals with drug addictions. Over time, it morphed into First Call for Help. Jaimie Ferren, director of 2-1-1 services in Fort Wayne, says a major business closure in the area caused a rise in people who were in need of services and resources, and eventually resulted in United Way joining forces with the help line. “We were the first call center in the state to go live with the 2-1-1 dialing code,” she says. “We serve 19 counties, but the Indiana211 system is available in all of Indiana. United Way of Allen County continues to house and is joined by various United Way locations throughout the region in supporting us.”

The 2-1-1 line provides various resources for nearly any kind of need. “When people call 2-1-1, there is a live person who will give an assessment to each case,” Ferren says. “What our staff does is really try to listen to what the caller is not saying so that we can better determine their needs and a plan of action. Our top three needs are usually food, shelter or rent, and utilities.”

When someone calls 2-1-1, it’s not just about solving the obvious problem. For example, if a person calls in need of food, the service goes beyond simply connecting the individual to a local food bank. “We like to take a few steps back and figure out why they have this need,” says Ferren. “We want to know what led up to the problem and how we can help in other ways. This allows us to connect them to case management – or job resources in this case – for a more long-term solution.”

The calls received at the 2-1-1 center are not limited to basic needs. Ferren explains some people call for legal advice, tax preparation assistance, information on obtaining a GED and a host of other reasons. In fact, United Way of Allen County President and CEO David Nicole says he used the 2-1-1 center for advice on what to do with clothing and personal items belonging to a relative who had recently passed. 

The number of calls to the 2-1-1 center fluctuates throughout the year as people have different needs at different times. It generally sees an influx of calls in the winter during the initial onset of cold weather, when people turn on their furnaces that don’t work properly, or perhaps their gas has been disconnected. “We always see an uptick of calls when it first gets cold,” says Ferren. “We also get more calls when kids go back to school, when some families have been unstably housed during the summer and then need a permanent home address for registration.”

Nicole explains that it takes a certain type of personality to answer 2-1-1 service calls. “They are nonjudgmental, patient and actively listen to each call,” he says. “Most times callers are at a point of frustration. Our staff does a truly unbelievable job of reducing the tension in those calls.”

The 2-1-1 phone calls are answered by eight highly trained individuals, called “community navigators.” Ferren says there are challenges her staff faces in fielding calls all day to help find the right resources for some very difficult needs. “The emotional aspect is always a factor,” she says. “Many calls are very intense, and they keep coming in all day long. We make sure each of our staff is taking care of themselves so that they are mentally and emotionally strong enough to stay and do their job effectively. One of the biggest things we do here is support each other.” 


2-1-1 Services United Way of Allen County

Address: 334 E. Berry Street Fort Wayne, Indiana 46802

Phone: (260) 422-4776

Website: MyUnitedWay2-1-1.org

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