PUBLISHED: 4:51 PM on Wednesday, March 12, 2008
5 Questions about United Way's 2-1-1 service
The United Way launched its 2-1-1 service last month, providing Alaskans a phone hotline to acquire social services information. Brenda Hewitt, United Way president for the Southeast Alaska region, gives the 411 on 2-1-1 service.

What is the concept behind2-1-1 service and its history?

Actually I traced it back to an effort in 1971 in Wisconsin to act as a referral hotline for troubled youth. Success breeds success and it wasn't long before others wanted to duplicate a call center for other social services.

  Regional President Brenda Hewitt
The first 2-1-1 help line was launched by United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta in 1997. Today, more than 44 states and the District of Columbia offer 2-1-1 services that reach 75% of the population.

All five of the United Way agencies in Alaska joined together to bring it to life for Alaskans, but United Way of Anchorage has done the lion's share of the work, I want to make sure they get the credit they deserve. They sought and secured the appropriation supported by Senator Stevens and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to launch the effort, but it is meant to be sustained through a public/private partnership with government, businesses and nonprofits working together.

What information/services can be obtained by calling 2-1-1?

2-1-1 offers information and referral, free of charge to the caller, on a broad range of services, including rent assistance, food banks, affordable housing, health resources, child care, after-school programs, elderly care, financial literacy, job training programs and much more. 2-1-1 is for anyone who needs help finding help from simple daily life issues to critical needs.

What role did phone companies play in setting up 2-1-1?

The phone companies are wonderful and they deserve a lot of credit for helping to get the technical side of 2-1-1 to work. When you think of all the backroom things that have to take place for cell phones and different systems, it is mind boggling. There are still a few phones systems in rural areas that are not on board yet but 90% of them are so people should feel fairly confident of being able to call 2-1-1 and get a trained specialist weekdays from 8:30-5 or answers are available 24/7 at the website

I would like to also say that there are some office phone systems (PBX) that may have trouble calling 2-1-1. If this is true for the caller, then call 1-800-478-2221 and they can help with fix that in most cases.

How have Alaskans responded so far to using 2-1-1?

Since our "official launch" in early February, we have been getting anywhere from 30 to 60 calls a day. The challenge is to get the word out so people can and will use it. We did a soft launch in the fall to work the bugs out and so we are seeing a gradual increase every week. Many of us in our normal work encounter people who need help. Human Resource directors and legislative staff have found it particularly helpful but I know there will be many more folks we can help perhaps through churches, businesses, government offices and our nonprofit agencies.

What is the next evolution/ future plans for 2-1-1?

We want to provide the best service possible so updating and expanding the 2-1-1 database is very important. As many of us in the field know, programs and services change all the time so it is important for the agencies to keep their data current with the system as well. There may still be some agency services out there that we don't have in the 2-1-1 system either so it is imperative that if someone offers a human health or social service to Alaskans, that we get the right information into the database.