For individuals and families in need, help isn’t always one-size-fits all. Some people may need clothes, while others need assistance paying for rent or utilities, and others may simply need someone who will listen. With such varying needs, where can they turn for help? The answer is just one call away: The 2-1-1 Maryland United Way Helpline.
Andrew Curtis, a 2-1-1 Helpline volunteer, vividly remembers one of the first calls he answered. The female caller told him that she desperately needed furniture for her apartment as well as a car seat because her niece, who recently had a baby, was being kicked out of her house and would be moving in with her.
“You could tell she was incredibly overwhelmed,” said Andrew, a University of Maryland at College Park student, who was interning as a volunteer call specialist for the summer. “She started talking, and as she continued, she became more and more emotional.”
Andrew, who had previously worked at his college campus’s crisis hotline, knew how to handle the situation. He asked the caller for her zip code, and after providing her with words of encouragement, referred her to several nearby furniture outlets where she could find free or inexpensive furnishings and a car seat.
“For some calls, I can help by simply giving the caller the information they need, but in this situation, it was also important for me to calm the caller down,” he said. “She was just trying to help her family out in a difficult situation and it became too much. I let her know we were here to help.”
For Andrew—and the roughly eight call specialists who help staff the helpline—the call was just one of many they receive every hour. The specialists at the free and confidential number field approximately 8,700 calls per month, and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, connecting people to essential health and human services. Specialists provide access to services and programs such as medical care, family counseling, job training and help locating necessities like food, clothing and shelter. These services are critical to many local families and individuals. Thirty-six percent of Marylanders live paycheck to paycheck, and one unexpected event, such as an illness, increase in rent or job loss can quickly spiral into a crisis. The Helpline connects them to the services they need to help them regain stability in their lives.
During his three-month internship as a 2-1-1 Maryland United Way Helpline volunteer, Andrew was assigned to the food and clothing sector of the helpline. Many of his callers were looking for food pantries or soup kitchens where they could find something to eat. In Maryland, to access many food pantries, recipients must have a “food referral,” so Andrew would take the caller’s information and send the document to the nearest pantry. He also helped many families sign up for the Summer Food Service Program for their children during the summer months. Kids in Baltimore City and surrounding counties who qualify for the program receive free breakfasts and lunches during the school year, and can receive free lunches during the summer through this program administered by the Baltimore Housing Office of Community Services.
Clothing-related calls often came from individuals who needed professional outfits for an interview or new job, or mothers looking for back-to-school clothing for their kids. Andrew would refer them to the nearest thrift shop or “clothing closet,” a non-profit organization or government-affiliated program that provides free clothing to those in need.
“Every call is different,” said Andrew, looking back on his internship. “There were people who literally would say, ‘I don’t know how this happened to me. I just need some help right now.’ Others would call every month looking for a food referral, but they often were in a very hard-to-change situation. It’s hard to make that leap out when you’re stuck in the same rut.”
For Andrew, who is majoring in psychology, handling calls was a valuable lesson in human nature. Some callers were understandably frustrated with their situations. “You have to remind yourself that these people are in a tough spot,” he said. “It’s nothing personal. I would try to put myself in the same situation. In this job, a little empathy goes a long way.”
Learn more about the 2-1-1 Maryland United Way Helpline and how you can support this important and vital community resource.
For more than 90 years, United Way of Central Maryland has been improving lives in the communities it serves: Anne Arundel County, Baltimore City, Baltimore County, Carroll County, Harford County and Howard County, Maryland.
United Way of Central Maryland is a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization! | Tax ID: 52-0591543