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Answering the call at 2-1-1

Like every 2-1-1 call center operator, Kristen Womack knows what she wants to accomplish today and every day. She wants to give someone hope.

She knows it’s possible because she is one of the people answering calls at United Way 2-1-1 for United Way of Greater Kansas City. Like it is for all of the staff at 2-1-1, all of her days are different, but each one is equally important.

It’s a brutally cold Thursday afternoon. Kristen is nearing the end of her seven-hour shift, when she answers a call. The caller is a young man who is out of money and out of gas, leaving him no way to heat his truck. He needs a warm place to sleep for him, his wife and their two elementary school aged children.

I have called everywhere and I can’t find any place for us to stay. Someone told me to call 2-1-1. Can you help?

2-1-1 caller

Kristen needs to move fast because it is late in the day and shelters fill up quickly on cold nights like this one. To make matters more challenging, Kristen is trying to get beds for an entire family. Once Kristen discovers the man is an Army veteran she asks for help from United Way’s Veterans Navigator, whose purpose is to develop a network so extensive that no matter the need, the veteran is cared for. Those types of resources are exactly what 2-1-1 is equipped to manage and connect people with.

The man had lost his job. There was no money left for rent so the family was evicted. The truck was the only place for the family to sleep for the past three nights. But after a few telephone calls, 2-1-1 was able to connect this young family with a warm place to stay that night and every night as they work to improve their lives.



Margrite Coffee knows what the day will be like. It is, after all, the first of the month. Today will be the busiest day of the month, with the most calls for the type of help that is most requested at United Way 2-1-1: utility assistance.

Margrite Coffee assists a caller at 2-1-1 call center.

Margrite knows how most of these calls will begin. What she doesn’t know is how memorably one call on this day will end. From the very beginning of the call, the woman on the other end is short with Margrite. "I need help paying my bill now. How can I be in this situation? I don’t know why I am calling you. What could you possibly do?," the caller asks, clearly frustrated. But Margrite remains calm even as the frustration escalates.

At 2-1-1, every caller is treated with equal dignity, respect and care. Referral telephone numbers begin to pop up on Margrite’s computer screen. She begins to tell the caller there are resources available.

The conversation takes a sudden shift as the caller says something unexpected and memorable:

I'm sorry. I didn’t know if you could help me. Thank you for being there.

2-1-1 caller

Another person on a better path toward opportunity and success.



The woman calling didn’t need Patt Harvey’s help paying an electric bill – she needed help to start a whole new life.

The caller’s name was Teresa, Patt remembers, and she was just 18. The only family she had ever known was no longer a part of her life. The only city she ever knew as home was simply no longer.

The woman had taken refuge in Kansas City during Hurricane Katrina, when a church bus delivering supplies down to New Orleans had offered return rides there. When Teresa first got here, she got initial help from the church and from several social service agencies. Long-term help would have to come from somewhere else – the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The worrisome Teresa was clutching her FEMA application when she dialed 2-1-1.

I don’t know how to get a hold of anyone. I don’t know how to do this application. I don’t know how to read or write. Can you help me?

2-1-1 caller

Patt found out that Teresa did know how to form individual letters. That was the only start the two women needed. Then – very, very slowly – they worked together. Letter by letter became word by word. After 90 minutes, the four sentences needed to complete the application were done.

Patt gave Teresa her phone number and she called back about a month later. Her application was approved and she received $1,000. It was enough to secure her a place to live and clothes to wear. With these basic needs met, she also was able to find a new job through the Women’s Employment Network. And it all started with one phone call.

Jacquelyn Jordan wasn’t needed that Saturday afternoon to help someone start a new life. She was needed to save the life someone already had.

Although it is clearly urged in all communication that 2-1-1 is not for emergencies, those calls do happen. Like it did that Saturday when Jacquelyn was working taking not only calls from the Kansas City region but also – since the call load is lighter on weekends handling 2-1-1 calls from other cities.

Jacquelyn answered the call. It was a man on the other end. He was calling from St. Louis. He wanted to kill himself.

Jacquelyn alerted another staffer in the call center who immediately began contacting law enforcement in St. Louis. Jacquelyn kept the conversation even and calm. She asked the man about his life and his troubles. She offered concern and care, and, most importantly, stayed on the line with him until the police arrived. I think he was just looking for some help, Jacquelyn said.

And that’s what your gift to United Way makes possible for more than 100,000 callers here in Kansas City every year – and over 17 million callers in North America across the entire 2-1-1 network - help, support, hope and a real shot at a better life.

Jacquelyn Jordan, Kristen Womack, Margrite Coffee and Patt Harvey at the United Way 2-1-1 Call Center in Kansas City, Missouri. The center has answered more than 1.2 million calls since the first phone rang there in March 2006.