Author: Jessie Holmes
When North Carolinians urgently needed help with housing and utility bills, food assistance, or medical resources during the pandemic, they turned to NC 211 at a record rate. United Way’s free, statewide helpline saw a 50% surge in 2020 for a total of 180,000 calls, and even more people sought help on the NC 211 website. While those numbers have since decreased, more people still continue to call NC 211 compared to pre-pandemic levels.
If you dialed 2-1-1 today, one of the people you may hear on the other end of the line is Pooja*. She’s about to celebrate her one-year anniversary as a Community Resource Specialist.
“Being able to serve people in any way, in any capacity at 211 is very fulfilling,” says Pooja. “We’re like a steppingstone for people to be able to get the help they need.”
Pooja is trained to evaluate a client’s needs and connect them with verified resources in their local area, in any of the state’s 100 counties. She’ll tell you another vital part of her job is to provide a personal connection – to truly listen to her client’s story.
“That’s very crucial to the work that we do, to make sure they feel heard, they feel valued, and they feel needed as well,” says Pooja.
United Way Hires More Call Center Staff
She’s also one of several additional NC 211 staff members United Way has been able to hire with support from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Congress passed ARPA in March 2021 to help local and state governments respond to the social and economic impacts of COVID-19. It provided $5.4 billion to North Carolina, which was then appropriated through state legislation and signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper.
United Way of North Carolina received $409,000, which it’s using to increase its NC 211 staffing capacity by funding more positions like Pooja's. The grant is administered by the NC Pandemic Recovery Office (NCPRO).
“The American Rescue Plan funding has allowed us to answer more calls during a time where call volume has just exponentially increased,” says Brittany Pruitt Fletcher, President and CEO of the United Way of North Carolina.
Emergency Activation during COVID-19
As the pandemic began, it was common to hear NC 211’s name on local news broadcasts or during televised updates from Governor Cooper. In the following years, state leaders and local organizations continued to recommend the helpline to anyone seeking COVID-19-related resources or assistance with other basic needs. You’ll still find it listed at the top of NCPRO’s website.
“NC 211 is part of the State’s Emergency Response Team, so we’re activated any time there’s a disaster such as a hurricane,” says Fletcher. “However, with COVID-19, it was the first time we were activated for a crisis situation that impacted the entire state, and the entire nation.”
With that kind of exposure, and the widespread impacts of the pandemic, call volume skyrocketed. The United Way had already spent years building up and verifying its database of 13,000 resources. While most callers sought help with housing, food, or utilities, NC 211 could also make referrals for everything from workforce development to mental health services. During the pandemic, Community Support Specialists also became experts in where to find temporary resources and programs that had been set up specifically for people impacted by COVID-19.
A More Resilient NC 211
While the need for help has since declined from its peak, the NC 211 call center is still busier than it was in the years before the pandemic. The ARPA grant it received will help ensure the free information and referral service remains ready and available to help as many North Carolinians as possible – especially during another crisis.
“If a hurricane or a public health emergency were to hit North Carolina, it’s necessary to have that funding so we’re able to be flexible and surge during those disasters,” says Fletcher.
And when that happens, no matter what time of day or where you live in North Carolina, Pooja and the rest of the NC 211 Community Resource Specialists will be standing by ready to help you.
*Because of NC 211’s commitment to privacy for its staff and clients, we have omitted Pooja’s last name.