A man I'll call Javier phoned the United Way office here in Juneau recently. In a strongly accented voice, he spoke with the slow precision of grief. His wife, he explained, has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. His family, lacking health insurance or eligibility for Medicaid, is swamped by her medical expenses. Soon, they will be evicted from their apartment. He asked, "Who can I call?"
We turned to one of our United Way member agencies, Catholic Community Services, for advice. "Refer him to St. Vincent de Paul," suggested Betty Adams. "They have staff who work with the Hispanic community to resolve these very issues." Within minutes, he had a phone number to call, along with our promise to help ensure that he connected with a person who could answer his questions.
Javier is just one of thousands of Southeast Alaska residents who struggle each day to find answers to their urgent questions. Single mothers need information about day care for their children. Family members wonder how to care for loved ones with disabilities, or for fragile seniors. Parents may want to locate a scout troop - or a teen substance abuse program. Others would like to get involved, perhaps as a child's mentor, a hospice volunteer, or a soup kitchen sous-chef. Who do they call?
Our community is blessed with many hard-working nonprofits that serve as resources for people facing these and many more issues. For instance, Catholic Community Services staffs a referral service for seniors. The Association for the Education of Young Children handles child care referrals, and the Juneau office of the National Council for Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD) fields calls related to addiction treatment. What's lacking, agency directors tell me, is a centralized referral service with a well-publicized phone number. People in our communities, faced with a dramatic increase in the number of agencies and help lines, often don't know where to turn.
That's why the United Way of America is advocating the nationwide implementation of a 2-1-1 number that can refer callers to human services, whether for everyday needs or in times of crisis. Instead of looking through dozens of telephone numbers for the right social service organization, callers would be able to get the information they need from trained counselors at 2-1-1 centers.
Already, 128 2-1-1 systems are active in 26 states, serving 88 million people, or 32 percent of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, Alaska does not number among those states.
If the idea of a 2-1-1 service makes sense to you, you can help. United Way asks all Americans to call Congress, using the toll-free number 888-PASS-211, to urge their congressional delegation to cosponsor the Calling for 2-1-1 Act. This bipartisan legislation (S. 1630 and H.R. 3111), introduced by Sens. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., and Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. and Reps. Richard Burr, R-N.C.,and Ann Eshoo, D-Calif., has picked up the support of nearly 100 House sponsors and 27 Senate sponsors. But more support is needed to spur congressional leadership and the key committees to action. It is particularly critical to attract the support of more congressional Republicans. Calling this phone number will help that effort.
The toll-free phone number 888-PASS-211 is easy to use. It will identify members of Congress from Alaska, connect you to their offices free of charge, and will explain how to advocate for 2-1-1. All citizens will benefit from nationwide 2-1-1 service, so please call today. For more information, visit www.211.org.
Jodi Kilcup is executive director of the United Way of Southeast Alaska.