By Christina Wynn
PITTSFIELD — Many of us know someone — a friend or a relative — who was directly affected by the trio of monster hurricanes or ferocious wildfires that impacted many areas of our country this past year. Perhaps they were forced to evacuate, leaving behind the home they had built along with all their personal belongings, and were in need of shelter, clothes and basic necessities. Maybe they could stay in their home, but lost power and were unable to draw water from their tap or keep perishable food products on hand to feed their young children.
As you listened to heart wrenching accounts of these tragedies, did you ask yourself, "What would I do if something like that happened to me?"
Over 25 years ago, 2-1-1 was launched nationally by United Way of America as a free way to connect people to essential resources. In 2017, 2-1-1 services across the country provided information and referral assistance to 13.7 million callers.
Here in Massachusetts, Mass 2-1-1 partners with the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and local offices of emergency management to provide citizens with critical information and non-emergency assistance before, during and after emergency or disaster events. Those in need of assistance can call the easy to remember three-digit hotline number, 2-1-1. Mass 2-1-1 ensures residents have a way to obtain the help and support they need, which allows the 9-1-1 system to focus on life and death emergencies.
While calls related to emergency or disaster events here in the Berkshires are not a common occurrence, it's nice to know where one can turn should the need arise.
In addition to providing emergency management support, Mass 2-1-1, a program of the United Ways of Massachusetts and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, also connects residents to community resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The mission of Mass 2-1-1 is to ensure that Massachusetts residents get correct and helpful information the first time they call. According to Mass 2-1-1 CEO, Paul Mina, "The collaboration between the United Way and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts allows Mass 2-1-1 to access stable resources sufficient enough to continue this vital service well into the future."
So, what happens when you call 2-1-1? The free, confidential call is routed to a trained information and referral specialist, who helps identify your needs, then refers you to relevant human services, health or education resources from a comprehensive database. For example, in the case of a worker who has recently been laid off or whose hours have been reduced, the Mass 2-1-1 specialist may share information about unemployment benefits, job search options, SNAP benefits, food pantries, mortgage or rent help, utility assistance, counseling, and other resources.
Berkshire United Way is proud to partner with Mass 2-1-1; by providing financial support we ensured the 1,147 Mass 2-1-1 calls received from Berkshire County residents last year were answered. The most common requests for assistance were for child care support and services, utilities, mental health support and housing or shelter. Mass 2-1-1 also maintains a searchable online database at mass211.org, which is supported by an online chat feature.
Make others aware
Gov. Baker has declared today — February 11, or 2/11 — as Mass 2-1-1 day to raise awareness of this free, user-friendly phone and online system. I invite you to share this column on your personal Facebook page, or post it on the community bulletin board at your local coffee shop or place of employment. By promoting Mass 2-1-1 in our businesses, health care facilities, human services organizations, colleges and on social media, we can make sure that all Berkshire residents are aware of the resources available to them.
If you are a service provider in Massachusetts, we encourage you to promote the wonderful programs and services your organization provides to our county's residents by enrolling in or updating your information on the Mass 2-1-1- website. This will ensure that help and support is available to those in need.
Christina Wynn is dean of enrollment management at Berkshire Community College and vice-chair, Berkshire United Way board of directors.