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.”

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

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 211— 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 211 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 211 Donna Burnham says. “It’s not an easy place to work. It’s a lot of up and down.”

211 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 211 by calling, searching online, emailing contact211@unitedwayatlanta.org, using the 211 mobile app or by chatting with a call center specialist at 211online.unitedwayatlanta.org. You can also text your zip code and 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 211 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 211. 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, 211 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.”