06-04-2019


United Way program that connects people in this area to resources they need

By Bradley Roberts

A young man sits in his car parked in a secluded 24-hour lot in East Atlanta. This has been home for the past few days.

He recently lost his job—he needed that paycheck—and he quickly drained his savings trying to pay off his bills. Unfortunately, he came up just short on his rent payment. He was evicted, and as he sits now, he’s engulfed by a wave of emotion as he wonders where his next meal will come from.

He pulls out his phone and dials 2-1-1 — from that phone call, he’s met with a local United Way agent, who quickly rifles through a database with more than 4,000 resources for this man. Suddenly, his future doesn’t seem so bleak. There’s are resources that can help him while he gets back on track.

This scenario is not unlike the calls that come in regularly to 2-1-1 agents each day. These agents are often speaking to people on what may be one the hardest day of their lives. It’s a hard call to make, and an even harder call to take.

“I have a great team, and I have a lot of great respect for my team,” United Way’s Vice President of 2-1-1 Donna Burnham says. “It’s not an easy place to work. It’s a lot of up and down.”

2-1-1 is United Way’s program that connects people in this area to resources they need. The daytime staff starts its shift at 7 a.m. with about 14 to 16 agents sitting on calls — it depends on the time of the year and day of the week. There’s a staff of five who work the afternoon second shift, and one person sits on the phone to respond to overnight calls.

The community can access 2-1-1 by calling, searching online, emailing contact211@unitedwayatlanta.org, using the 2-1-1 mobile app or by chatting with a call center specialist at 221online.unitedwayatlanta.org. You can also text your need to 898-211.

“I call [agents] ‘Donna’s Angels,’” Burnham says. “They have to know what is going on in every department. The calls, texts and chats are going to come through them. You need someone who will listen to you in a respectful, non-judgmental manner.
“That seven-minute discussion can motivate people to move on. A lot of them are calling embarrassed because they have never had to do this before. Reaching out is hard when you have never had to do that.”

Burnham says she “admires what [her team] does on a day-to-day basis.” She knows what it is like to take those 50-60 calls per day. She’s been with United Way for 24 years and she started out in the volunteer department when the program was called “First Call to Help.”

Thanh Ly, senior communication connection specialist, said he was unaware of what 2-1-1 was before he interviewed for a job working as an agent nine years ago.

“I wanted to say I ended up here because of fate,” Ly says. “I was staying with a guy that worked here, and he interned and got a part-time job. He introduced me to the work, and that was when the job market had crashed.”

Ly says he has a degree in business management and finance from Georgia State University, but the job pool had dried up. So, he popped in for an interview at 2-1-1. Now, he’s taken on a role of assisting other agents needed.

“I’m so used to it and have done so well with it that any agents that have questions can come to me, and they can ask me about resources,” Ly says. “Sometimes we have back-to-back calls in the busy seasons and sometimes the clients are maybe giving you a difficult time on the phone.”

Ly also steps in to handle the particularly difficult questions from angry callers, or sometimes to deliver the bad news that there aren’t currently resources available to help them.

“You just have to take a breather and try to provide them the best customer service you can,” he says.

In the winter, Ly says many of the calls revolve around providing help to make electrical payments or helping connect callers with food resources.

“It’s a stressful but rewarding job,” Ly said. “I get to help people every day and make an impact in the community.”

Ly started the job nearly a decade ago because he needed the work. Since then, his life has changed a lot. He’s now a husband and father of two children ages 2 and 6.

But one thing hasn’t changed: Ly still loves his job. He loves being able to help people. He knows this isn’t a job that pays as well as one in the corporate world, but nothing compares to the feeling he gets from helping people.

“There’s stress and a lot of training, but after a while here I’ve learned money isn’t all that’s important,” Ly says. “What you do is important.”

Burnham has a lot of respect for her employees like Ly who are doing work on the ground that provide

For some people, 2-1-1 may be their first exposure to United Way. It gives United Way the chance to make an immediate impact.

“People may think it’s an easy job, but it is not,” Burnham says. “They are on the frontlines doing community building. That’s our niche.”