Call 211: The number to call for social services

August 2011 Posted in Other

By Dixon Bledsoe

When there is an emergency, we know the number to call is “911.”

When we are looking for a business or a long lost friend’s phone number, we call 411.

What number do you call when you are looking for a food bank in your community or where to go for medical care?

Try 211.

This easy to remember number is the one to call in the Mid-Willamette Valley that will connect callers to local community services from food banks to energy assistance. During 2004 in Oregon, momentum built for an easy solution that would connect people to health and social services, and that solution was the 211 program started in the Portland Metro area.

According to data made available by the United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley, more than 260,000 referrals were made to social services and other helping entities in 2010, and currently coverage reaches seven counties in Oregon.

“What matters most is our community will have access to an information and referral line when a crisis or challenge occurs in their lives. With more people seeking help for the first time, it makes sense to get them connected to the services they need as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Dick Withnell,  fundraising chair for the Mid-Valley expansion, said.

The United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley recently announced Marion and Polk counties will be the newest members of the Oregon 211 network. 

A soft-launch began Aug. 1, and hours of operation will be 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Local specialists will be trained to understand the needs of Oregonians searching for assistance. An up-to-date software system will make it easy to share database information across regions while reserving local control over resources and partnerships.

What does that mean for the Silverton, Mount Angel, Stayton, Sublimity and surrounding communities?
Elyse McGowan of Silverton Area Community Aid, Inc. (SACA), the area’s emergency food and financial assistance non-profit, said it means a lot of things.

“Reduced phone calls asking what the YMCA’s number is, or business hours of the Community Outreach Clinic,” she says. “We receive dozens of calls each week from people needing phone numbers, addresses or information as to who might provide what services. When the system is up and running at full steam in the Silverton, Mount Angel area, an easy-to-remember three-digit number will link them to most every service they might need.”

Denise Swanson, resource development director for United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley adds, “It is essential for schools, hospitals, businesses, churches, and non-profit organization to effectively communicate with Mid-Valley 211, and let people know that getting help will become as simple as dialing three digits.”

During a disaster, this service will be worth its weight in gold, providing crucial information regarding evacuation routes, local food and shelter, as well as support for long-term recovery.

John Olinger, the manager of Mid-Valley 211, is ready to run. “The cost to bring 211 to Marion and Polk Counties is approximately $180,000. United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley is funding approximately $65,000 of the $180,000, with the rest of the money coming from grants, foundations, and private donors. We are ready to go,” he said. Olinger held a training session for the Silverton Services Coordinating Committee on Aug. 3. The group represents social service groups doing business in and around Silverton and Mount Angel.

Olinger adds, “Agencies become included in the database by contacting 211 at  It is really pretty simple.”

While information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week at,  dialing 211 after hours or on a weekend will give callers a recorded message (in English and Spanish) directing callers to Northwest Human Services Crisis Hotline in the event of a crisis. 

Olinger sees no duplication of service with Silverton Together services, including Community Connectors.

“The role of Silverton Together and Community Connectors remains the same, but it allows them to continue to hone their focus and spend time solving the problems in front of them, not spending hours doing information and referral,” he said. “With good partnership between agencies and Mid-Valley 211, we will make sure that callers become educated on who can satisfy their needs in their local area.” 

“If services don’t exist to help them, or capacity for certain organizations has been reached, then we will know that also and can use the data to catalyze the filling of gaps in service,” he explains.

How does it work? Any person who doesn’t know where to find particular services, such as someone who needs food for her family and doesn’t know where to turn, will call 211. 

The professionals there will determine the need and location of the person seeking assistance.

For example, a caller living in Silverton would be routed to Silverton Area Community Aid, and SACA would have provided accurate information to the 211 database such as hours, location, services and its mission. 

Likewise, people can be sent to Community Outreach for information if they have no health care coverage and are seeking help or Silverton Together to learn more about the Apple Tree program or parenting classes.

Information is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at

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