Local News

Highlands County's 2-1-1 service exists - under the radar

SEBRING - A free, round-the-clock community resource referral service serves Highlands, Polk and Hardee counties but only 4 percent of the calls came from Highlands last fiscal year. 2-1-1 is a nationwide service that connects people with social and human services when callers dial the number "211" on their landlines or cell phones. United Way of Central Florida runs the program for all residents in the tri-county area but the Highlands County division does not provide any funding of its own, said United Way's Highlands County area director Kristin Handley. Callers can get help for "simple" requests such as information on Meals on Wheels providers or more involved referral assistance, such as from a parent who has a very sick child, explained June Barnett, director of 2-1-1 for United Way of Central Florida.
"It runs the gamut of social service providers," she said, adding the "referral specialists" also do case management when they are talking to callers, and try to resolve the root problem the callers may be facing to "help them become self-sufficient." "We begin to have a conversation on what's going on," she added. While the program is nationwide and callers can get help on information even outside of their area, Central Florida's United Way does not have money to market the program and relies on word-of-mouth. That may explain why it does not appear to be that well used, at least in Highlands County. United Way averages about 50,000 calls a year from the three counties, Barnett said. While the call volume from Highlands County was only 4 percent from June 2011 to July 2012, many social service groups in the area are aware of the service and frequently use it, she added. She explained that its low profile in Highlands County may be because the county's established service groups, such as the Children's Advocacy Center, and the county Department of Human Services, do a good job of helping the residents. The Children's Advocacy Center's Executive Director Jeff Roth, who also sits on the Highlands County Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP) committee, wonders if it's also because people are more accustomed to searching for things online these days. "Nowadays, we all tend to use the Internet," he said. The 211 information also can also be accessed online at uwcf.org/2-1-1. One of the findings of Highlands County's 2012 Community Health Survey, sponsored by the Health Council of West Florida, was that respondents were not aware of how to access community resources, and the CHIP committee had asked a sub-committee to evaluate and update the current 2-1-1 system. An "exhaustive evaluation" has just been finished, Roth said, and some of the Highlands County data was found to be outdated. The changes have been made on paper and they are in the process of getting it over to Highland City in Polk County where United Way of Central Florida is headquartered so the revisions can be made in the system data, Roth said. Because the information, at least on Highlands County, is outdated, they have been hesitant to publicize 211, Roth added. "It's a wonderful system but it's as good as its current information," he added. Meanwhile, the service is bilingual, and all calls are confidential and free to callers, even on cell phones, Barnett said. Those who are having trouble getting 2-11 can dial 863-648-1515. Services and information can also be accessed online at uwcf.org/2-1-1.