A decade of help and innovation: United Way’s PA 211 Southwest

By Michele Sandoe, Senior Director, United Way’s PA 211 Southwest

You know 9-1-1, right? That’s the number you dial when there’s an emergency, serious injury, or someone is in immediate danger. Familiar with 4-1-1? That’s the number you call for a phone directory, weather information, directions, and movie showtimes. But do you know what’s available when you dial 2-1-1?

PA 211 Southwest is United Way’s 24/7/365 helpline for neighbors in need across the region. Anyone can contact 211. From a single parent struggling to pay the bills to a veteran in crisis or a senior looking for transportation – 211 is there to provide resources and something that may be just as important: hope.

The need in our community was growing even before the Covid-19 pandemic. As the cost of living increased and wages stayed the same, people across the region were using their savings or taking out loans to pay bills. But as the need in our region grew, 211 grew with it. When PA 211 Southwest launched phone service in 2011, our team of two Resource Navigators answered roughly 25 calls a day. A decade later, our team of 34 Resource Navigators now responds to a thousand calls, texts, and web chats each day.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of this vital community lifeline, there are a few things you should know about 211’s work in our region.

More than one million requests have been answered.

Throughout PA 211 Southwest’s decade of service to our region, we have received 1,102,843 requests for help. Each one is important because we know there is a person or family behind it. Our trained and empathetic Resource Navigators are prepared not only to answer the request at face value but to ask questions that identify additional issues the person may be experiencing. For example, a senior could call because he is unable to pay a utility bill, but we may discover he doesn’t have enough food or anyone to take him to his doctor’s appointments.

The most frequent request are related to basic human needs.

Across the board, the most common requests now and in the last ten years have been about housing, utility assistance, and access to food. When you stop to think about that, it’s incredibly alarming. No one should go hungry or experience homelessness. Not in our region. Not anywhere. Even when the Covid-19 pandemic swept our communities, those top needs did not change. Thanks to PA 211 Southwest’s Resource Navigators and network of agency partners, these urgent request are addressed rapidly and thoroughly.

PA 211 Southwest’s commitment to innovation is endless.

2020 brought many unexpected challenges but our commitment to helping remains as strong as ever. PA 211 Southwest has always sought creative, innovative ways to reach the people who need us most. When it became clear that some callers needed more help than others, we enhanced the website so resources could be easily browsed online. Soon after, text and web chat options were unveiled. And we didn’t stop there. Today, we’re thrilled to welcome visitors to our new PA 211 Southwest web app. Developed in coordination with Carnegie Mellon University and sensez9, this new app provides a streamlined interface where people can find resources related to basic needs, apply for Covid-19 relief funds, and schedule Free Tax Prep appointments. As technology and the way we interact with it changes, 211  will continue to leverage technology in new, dynamic ways – that’s a promise.

We cannot complete these optimizations and innovations without our corporate partners and champions. Peoples Natural Gas and Duquesne Light were instrumental in introducing 211 to our community and continue their dedicated support to this day. We must also recognize the generous donors, community leaders, and everyone who has supported PA 211 Southwest over the last ten years. Without all of you, PA 211 Southwest wouldn’t be where it is today.

No matter what our communities face next, PA 211 Southwest will be there. As we head down the road towards recovery, let’s walk together. If you find yourself in need of help, or know someone who is, contact PA 211 Southwest by dialing 2-1-1, texting your zip code to 898-211, visiting pa211sw.org, or trying the new web app.