Since 2004, people struggling to make ends meet have been able to call United Way 211 of Manasota when they need food, a place to stay or information about services available in their communities.
The help line refers callers in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties to social service agencies that have funds and programs to help.
Now, United Way 211 of Manasota is working to make sure there is aid available at both ends of the call.
The group has started a pilot program in which its referral specialists prescreen clients for specific programs instead of simply offering a connection to an agency.
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The program should save local social service agencies, already burdened by increased need brought on by the economic downturn, precious time and staff resources.
“We’re just trying to take more of a leadership role to help these agencies with their client management,” said Ben Kunkel, the help line’s director of operations. “It’s staggering the number of people we throw at these agencies.”
One of the first agencies to try the program was Building Strong Families, an outreach of the Jewish Families & Children Service of Sarasota-Manatee Inc. that tries to help the financial and emotional stability of families with children who are facing homelessness.
The program has some specific guidelines, so United Way 211 of Manasota came up with a 17-question form its referral specialists use when talking to a client they think might qualify.
The program is working, according to Teressa Martin, the coordinator of Building Strong Families. An updated feature of the program has referral specialists inputting the information into an online form and sending the results in an e-mail to Building Strong Families.
“We don’t get a lot of clients that aren’t eligible. The questions are more specific to our programs,” Martin said.
The Building Strong Families program helped 367 families with 830 children during fiscal year 2009-10, which ended May 31, Martin said. That was up from 208 families with 647 children in the previous fiscal year.
The Jewish Families & Children Service also uses the 211 database to refer callers to other agencies when it can’t help.
“We could not do our jobs efficiently without the service 211 provides,” said Andrea Bilan, vice president of development at Jewish Families & Children Service. “It’s an invaluable community resource.”
Prescreening forms also are used for The Salvation Army in Sarasota, specifically the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and Care to Share programs. Clients can even fill out a LIHEAP form themselves if they have access to a computer.
Kunkel hopes to expand the prescreening program to more agencies, including Manatee County’s Salvation Army.
“It may add a little bit of time onto it,” Kunkel said, “but in the long run it’s worth it because it’s less confusion for the client. The clients will call us and go through a whole slew of questions and answers just to determine whether they’re eligible for a program. When we pass them off to the agency, they have to go through the whole thing again.
“The agencies aren’t set up as call centers. Their functions are to administer their programs and to do the case management for the programs that they have.”
United Way 211 of Manasota began taking calls for help in early 2004 as part of the statewide 211 network created by the Legislature. The organization’s two full-time and four part-time information referral specialists, along with volunteers, handled 64,864 calls during the fiscal year ended June 30. In June, the help line fielded 4,738 calls.
The high-water mark for call volume came in October 2009, when an overwhelmed 211 staff took between 6,000 and 7,000 calls and another 3,000 calls went unanswered.
According to Executive Director Jessica Ventimiglia, late summer and fall are busy times for the call center.
“We get slack times and peak times,” Ventimiglia said. “August last year was nuts, September and October. December’s always a rough time. ... It’s rewarding, though. I don’t think any of us would be here if it wasn’t. What could be more important than helping your neighbors?”
All aid groups that receive county or United Way funding are obligated to make sure the information that pertains to their group in 211’s database is up to date. But the required information is basic, such as which programs the agency administers and contact numbers for the agency, and it doesn’t always inform the referral specialists if there is funding available in the program.
Communication between the help line and the social service agencies is critical, Kunkel said.
“That’s why we’re proactive in trying to reach out to the agencies: ‘Hey, what’s going on? Do you want us to make some referrals to you guys? At the same time, if you’ve got a waiting list 60 people deep, we’ll cut off the feed until you can catch up.’ That’s a precarious type of balancing act, trying to keep up with all that,” Kunkel said.