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211 is 'best thing since ... 911'

New phone number for help available

By Dawn Schuett

schuett@postbulletin.com

A three-digit phone number, 211, can now connect people in many parts of Minnesota to information and referrals for health and human services.

However, the service isn't being marketed locally yet because it's not entirely operational in the region, said Margie Wherritt, coordinator of First Call for Help services at CommunityNet in Rochester.

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"We did not want to go public down here until we got all the kinks worked out," Wherritt said.

Areas served by phone carrier Qwest Communications, such as Rochester, can access 211, although there are some minor technical difficulties to overcome. However, communities such as Kasson, which has a local phone carrier, are still unable to use the service.

Wheritt said she hopes the service will be completely implemented in southeast Minnesota by the end of the year.

The 211 service will be a valuable tool in assisting individuals and families in crisis, Wherritt said.

"211 is the best thing since sliced bread or 911," she said.

A national effort, called the 211 Collaborative, began in 1997 to make the dialing code available across the country. Led by the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems and the United Way of America, the collaborative involves other national, state and local non-profit groups working to establish the service.

The goal is to expand 211 statewide in every state. As of June, there were 29 active 211 centers in 14 states, according to the Web site www.211.org. Most are in metropolitan areas and are not statewide. The service is available statewide in Connecticut and Hawaii. A few others, like Minnesota, are close to having it accessible statewide.

First Call Minnesota, the Minnesota Information and Referral Alliance and the United Way of Greater Twin Cities First Call for Help have worked to implement 211 throughout the state.

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First Call Minnesota is a coalition of 10 regional centers known as First Call for Help, which provide information and referrals for social services. Each of the centers represents several counties. CommunityNet in Rochester is the regional First Call for Help center for Olmsted, Mower, Dodge, Freeborn, Steele and Rice counties. First Call for Help agencies share a database of more than 10,000 human services agencies in the state.

When a 211 call is placed in this region, it is answered by staff at CommunityNet. Wherritt said the first question the staff member asks the caller is, "may we help you?"

The staff member then assesses the caller's needs and determines which human service agency might be able to help the caller. Each caller will receive at least two referrals for assistance, Wherritt said.

First Call for Help averaged 180 to 240 calls a month for the past two years. In the last two months with 211 available, there was a 30 percent increase in the call volume, said Stacey Vanden Heuvel, executive director of CommunityNet.

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