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Three digits to help Alaskans

  • Author: Sue Brogan
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 27, 2019
  • Published December 29, 2019

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On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Alaska 2-1-1 staffers took 215 calls.

Mondays are usually busy, averaging more than 100 calls to the United Way of Anchorage helpline that connects callers and online users in need to more than 800 providers and 1,100 services throughout the state, five days a week by phone, 24/7 online.

But on Nov. 25, three call specialists fielded twice the usual crush, from people seeking help with open enrollment for health care to rent and utility assistance to emergency shelter to Thanksgiving dinner for a family whose cupboards are bare. The holidays offer stress on steroids to individuals and families struggling to stay housed, fed and functional. This is when 2-1-1 staffers’ professional-grade blend of expertise, calm and compassion can bring light and warmth to a bleak Monday.

Perhaps it’s no surprise. From its founding in 2007 through the end of 2018, Alaska 2-1-1 specialists have fielded 244,067 calls, made 329,877 referrals and had almost a half-million inquiries online. There’s no other service like it in Alaska. Not even close.

As United Way’s chief operating officer and a founder and overall supervisor of Alaska 2-1-1, I know that our initiatives grow exponentially with the power of many partners. With each call at 2-1-1, we live the conviction of our “live united” slogan, connecting neighbors in need to the help they need.

I was recently appointed to the 2-1-1 US National Steering Committee, a group of 2-1-1 leaders across the country who work with the Alliance of Information and Referral Services and United Way Worldwide to strengthen 2-1-1 networks with innovation, technology and best practices. That appointment is another reflection of our call team’s quiet, steady work with callers and providers in building the effectiveness of Alaska 2-1-1 – and the range.

Alaska 2-1-1 is the doorway to Emergency Cold Weather Shelter in Anchorage. When homeless families call, they’re referred to AWAIC, which connects the family to whatever shelter is available, including the emergency network of churches.

Alaska 2-1-1 was the city’s go-to crew for getting accurate information to the public in the aftermath of the 7.1 earthquake that struck Anchorage on Nov. 30, 2018. The city called 2-1-1 into action as part of its emergency response. Call specialists spiked rumors, quelled panic and restored calm even as aftershocks rattled residents. During the first 36 hours of calls after the quake, someone was always there to pick up.

Since the earthquake of a year ago, Alaska 2-1-1’s rigorous tracking of the nature of calls (but always confidential) has been a first-line measure of the consequences of events from the governor’s budget cuts to the indictment of Alaska health providers for overprescribing opioids.

In the case of the June budget vetoes, the helpline experienced a surge of callers wanting to know about food banks, shelters, Medicaid, senior benefits, Pioneer Home rate increases, and rental and utility assistance. When would benefits end? Where could people turn? 2-1-1 staffers took the surge in stride, made referrals and logged calls that provided a reality check right on the ground, where people live.

In October, an Eagle River nurse practitioner and Soldotna doctor were charged in a federal indictment for illegal distribution of millions of doses of opioids, resulting in overdoses, addictions and deaths. 2-1-1 calls testified to additional fallout from the charges: Many of the indicted pair’s patients had legitimate needs for pain medicine – where should they go now?

So in the past year, 2-1-1 has shown its value both in response to crisis and as a measure of it. And whether they help a city keep its feet on shaking ground or guide one desperate caller at a time to help and hope, 2-1-1 specialists take the call. Even when there’s no help to be had, they listen. Some callers have said the listening alone is worth the call.

A day like Nov. 25 is exhausting. But 2-1-1 specialists deliver so well and consistently they’re often taken for granted. In this case, being taken for granted is high praise.

Sue Brogan is chief operating officer of United Way of Anchorage, a key leader in the founding of Alaska 2-1-1 in 2007 and its current overall supervisor. More at alaska211.org.



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