Published Friday, November 23, 2001, in the Akron Beacon Journal.
Answers available at 211
Dial that number soon for data, referrals in Summit, Stark and Portage
Beacon Journal staff writer
The phone rings, and a daughter wants to know how to get her elderly dad involved in social activities.
It rings again, and a man wants to know if he can get help paying his utility bills.
A third caller wants to know how to volunteer as a tutor.
Each time, a trained researcher at Summit County's Info Line turns to a computer database that whirs through myriad details about 1,200 community agencies, organizations and programs.
For residents, tapping into that wealth of information is going to get even easier by next spring.
All it will take is dialing 211.
Summit, Stark and Portage are among the first six counties in the state to be approved for the special three-digit telephone number. Services in Wayne and Medina counties have no immediate plans for a 211 service, but are working to get the service after 2002.
Last year, the Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for doling out three-digit phone numbers, handed 211 to the country's information and referral services.
In Ohio, county agencies must first show they can operate 24 hours a day before the Public Utilities Commission will grant their request.
As soon as some bureaucratic procedures are out of the way, the three area counties will launch their round-the-clock 211 service. That could be as early as February, or as late as May.
Info Line has been a 24-hour operation for years, but president Richard Stahl said up to six more people could be added to his staff of 40. That's because experience in other states shows call volumes jump 20 percent to 30 percent after switching to 211.
``It's a simple number to associate with getting help that is not related to a police emergency,'' Stahl said.
Charles Calhoun, director of the Community Information Center in Stark County, said his office has already logged 20 percent more calls this year because of the worsening economy.
Still, he doesn't expect to hire more staff. Instead, workers at the Stark County Crisis Intervention Center will be trained to handle calls in the evening. Currently, the service ends at 5 p.m.
Portage County's First Call for Help is also making arrangements to have calls answered after 5 p.m.
Stahl, who left a similar post in Los Angeles to take over the reins in Akron this year, said that as 211 becomes widely known, Info Line will be able to reach people who never knew such a service existed.
Helping residents find resources to improve their lives is only one of Info Line's missions, Stahl said.
By analyzing the calls they receive, Stahl said, Info Line is in a unique position to notice gaps in community service -- like when an area doesn't have a health care clinic, or a family counseling service isn't on the bus route.
``We can identify where there is a need, and work to remove barriers to that service,'' he said.
But he said Info Line's bread and butter continues to be direct communication with people in need, and a staff that tackles every phone call as if it were the most important of the day.
Listen between lines
It's only 2 on a recent afternoon, and Shelley McConnell has already handled 110 phone calls since 9 a.m. Some queries to Info Line are answered in a couple of minutes. Other calls are much more complicated.
The operators -- trained to be everything from educators and researchers to crisis managers -- often find they have to listen between the lines. A caller may be asking for money to pay for a prescription, but a short conversation may reveal that the person has recently lost a job.
``Sometimes you instinctively know that what they're asking for is just a small part of what they need,'' said McConnell, who considers it her job to make sure such a caller has a plan of action before she hangs up.
Supervisor Linda Higgins said staff members do their best to answer every question -- even those that have nothing to do with community services.
A caller who asked how to cook a turkey was referred to 1-800-BUTTERBALL. When another asked what to do with some old Confederate money she found, McConnell surfed the Internet and found someone for her to talk to.
And it's not uncommon to hear from parents who are trying to help their kids with homework, but get stumped by a math question.
In addition to handling general information and referral calls, Info Line has grown to include several specialized services.
Lifeline. About 1,100 residents take part in this medical alert program for the frail, elderly, disabled or home-bound. There is a monthly fee, but much of the cost is underwritten by United Way.
Childcare Connection. More than 3,000 families a year use this free service to find day-care and home-care providers that meet their criteria. The service even helps train caretakers.
MedAssist. Low-income residents can get no-interest loans for purchasing medications, and are hooked up with pharmacies willing to provide drugs at reduced prices.
Senior Info Line. This specialized department of Infoline is staffed with people who have degrees in gerontology or experience in the unique issues facing senior citizens.
Project Connect. This program provides training for other nonprofit organizations on how to use technology -- from building databases to creating Web sites -- to help them better reach out to their target populations.
Kinship Navigator. A proposal in the works would create this project, which would reach out to grandparents and other family members who are caring for children not in the custody of a parent.
Info Line fields nearly 70,000 calls a year. That figure could jump to 100,000 after 211 brings the service more recognition.
And as far as supervisor Higgins is concerned, ``More is better.''
``When I speak to groups, I'm always amazed at how many people don't know we're out there,'' she said. ``We welcome anything that will help us get people to the services they need.''
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or