2-1-1 agents offer callers help, ‘a listening ear’

By Bradley Roberts

A 2-1-1 agent settles into a rolling chair at her cube in her office. She stretches her arms over her head, and then reaches them underneath her chair to adjust the lumbar support before rolling up to the desk’s edge.

The woman’s day starts at 7 a.m. The next five hours are the busiest of the day for all of the agents at 2-1-1. The calls, emails and texts will roll in heavily for the next few hours.

The service hasn’t stopped, though. One overnight agent, Janell Johnson, has been taking calls since 9:30 p.m. the previous day.

There’s always someone willing to help. They are willing to answer the call and provide necessary help and resources for those across the state of Georgia who are in need.

The program started 21 years ago. A service called “First Call for Help” predates the 2-1-1 program. The program expanded and a formed a committee that decided to establish an easy-to-remember three-digit number that would immediately connect people to someone who could provide them with contacts that could give them services they needed.

Now, all 50 states and Puerto Rico have 2-1-1 service. That results in 94.2 percent of the overall population of the United States.

February 11 — or 2/11 — was a day to recognize 2-1-1 agents across the United States. On this morning, the woman still has a “thank you” bag of goodies sitting on her desk.

She plugs in her headset and immediately her phone starts to ring: “United Way 2-1-1 — How can I help you?” she says.

A woman’s voice comes across faintly through the earpiece.

“My husband just left me,” she says with a pause, gathering composure. “I’m staying in a hotel, and I’m at an end. I just don’t know what to do.”

The woman had children that were put into foster care. She was just starting a new job today. She had never received any government assistance before. She never thought she would have to.

“Do you need assistance with a hotel voucher?” the agent asks.

The agent asks for an zip code and then runs it through a database to locate nearby services for the caller. She tells her that she can put her in contact with an organization that will put her into temporary housing and then work to provide her a more permanent solution.

The agent acts quickly, locating numbers and other information that she can send in the body of an email or a text message to the woman on the other side of the phone. In all, she gives her about 10 different places she can contact to receive housing assistance.

Over the next hour, she answers questions about food banks, places to find warm clothing, and organizations that provide family and job support.

As she ends one call, the next one comes through to her and so on. The cycle continues for the next few minutes. Each call starts the same: the agent reassures that caller that she will do whatever she can to provide help.

The overnight agent, Johnson, says people call at all hours of the day to ask for these basic needs.

“The types of calls have always been the same,” Johnson said. “The calls for help with electrical bills, rent, gas and water, that’s all been the same. Just because it’s nighttime doesn’t change anything. It’s just 2 a.m. instead of 2 p.m.”

She’s been working at 2-1-1 for nearly two decades. A lot has changed in this time, of course.

“When we first started, everything was by paper and then you had a book,” Johnson said. “And the computers — you can chat, text or email us now. Those have been some drastic changes. We just try to keep up with the technology.”

Each call ends the same, with a list of resources and a guarantee to follow up with them in the next few days. And there’s usually a “thank you.”

“I look at my position as a special position,” Johnson says. “A lot of people think that since it’s night, ‘Oh, she’s not going to get any calls,’ but that’s not true. We have a live person on the phone, and people are always very thankful and grateful for that.
“I get a call when they are stressed out, and there’s a live person that they can speak to. They appreciate when someone is there.”

Don Zubler, 2-1-1 operations director, agrees with Johnson. He said it’s the “most rewarding thing” about the job.

“The most rewarding thing is that there are people that say thank you,” says Zubler. “You don’t look for it and you don’t expect it, but they will sometimes come back with something about how blessed they are or how helpful you have been. It’s something that you may have done for 200 people before them, but you feel like maybe you’ve touched someone’s life — not just by giving them a referral, but by giving them a listening ear.”