Sometimes, getting help starts with a simple phone call.
“Technically, it couldn’t be any simpler — a person answering the phone and giving out information,” said Paul Murphey, a volunteer with the Wiregrass 2-1-1 call center in Dothan. “But these are people — human beings — who turn to us because they believe we can help. It is as fulfilling as anything I’ve ever done.”
The Wiregrass 2-1-1 call center opened 12 years ago to serve seven counties — Barbour, Coffee, Covington, Dale, Geneva, Henry and Houston — in southeastern Alabama. It’s one of nine such centers serving Alabama’s 67 counties.
By dialing 2-1-1, a caller can get information about community resources such as housing for the homeless; who to turn to if you suspect a child is being abused; where to find the closest food pantry; what programs are available to help with medical and prescriptions costs; or how to get to a medical appointment if you have no transportation. The call center is available 24/7.
Feb. 11 has been declared National 2-1-1 Day by United Way Worldwide to recognize the role such call centers play in communities.
Wiregrass 2-1-1 does more than provide phone numbers, Executive Director David Duke said. The center’s volunteers connect people to the right resources for their needs while providing information on eligibility requirements, office hours and documentation needed. That saves people time and frustration.
“When people contact us, we help to problem-solve, listen to them, talk to them, provide a caring person that truly wants to be able do what they can to help them,” Duke said. “At least get them in the right direction to get the help that they need.”
At 88, Murphey is a retired college professor, a retired Navy chaplain, a former hospice volunteer and the author of 12 books. About a year ago, he moved to Dothan to be closer to his daughter and her family.
Murphey heard about 2-1-1 from a local news story. He answers calls three times a week. Some of the stories he hears are heart-wrenching.
“Volunteering for me is one of the things I’m most proud of — that God has given me the strength, the knowledge, the experience,” he said. “All of my experience fits into this, ... and I can be a part of their lives.”
Wiregrass 2-1-1 opened with funding from the Wiregrass United Way, the Wiregrass Foundation, and with space provided by the Alfred Saliba Family Services Center. As a standalone center and a nonprofit group, the call center still receives funding from the United Way but also does several fundraisers a year.
In its 12-year history, the local 2-1-1 has answered 170,267 calls and made 302,484 referrals. During fiscal 2019, it fielded 854 homeless calls — a 23% increase from the previous fiscal year. Housing and utility assistance, such as paying deposits or keeping power turned on, are the top two reasons people call 2-1-1. Family and individual community services; health care and prescriptions; and food also rank high among callers’ needs.
Coming up with money for deposits and utilities can be tough because funding just isn’t always available, Duke said. But volunteers can steer callers to agencies and programs that can help save costs in other areas.
“Ultimately, whatever their need, we get that so they can be independent,” he said. “I always say that dialing 2-1-1 is that first step to gaining stability back in their lives.”
Without volunteers, the center couldn’t help anyone. Call center manager Marc Cronin also has been vital in training volunteers and keeping the center going, Duke said.
Since Hurricane Michael in 2018, the center has made technical upgrades so that it can be mobile if necessary. It lost power during the storm, and calls had to be routed to another location. Now, all the center needs is an internet connection since all calls come over an internet port.
Also, people can now text 2-1-1 or visit its website or Facebook page to make contact, which is why the “call” center is often referred to as a “contact” center.
Bessie Mitchell volunteers at Wiregrass 2-1-1 one day a week, working a half-day shift. She began volunteering because she was once the person in need and didn’t know where to even turn for help; there was no 2-1-1 to call for guidance.
Helping callers find resources fills her with joy, she said.
“I know the hopelessness that you feel when you don’t know what to do,” Mitchell said. “The hours of lying awake at night, especially if you have children and you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to feed your children, how you’re going to keep them warm, how you’re going to just keep them in a home. When I talk to them I can understand because I’ve been there.”