Lake County to launch 211 system to connect residents with essential services

An easy-to-use, three-digit information and referral hotline offering accurate, 24-hour personal help for hundreds of potential issues is being launched in Lake County.

A text feature and website also are part of 211 Lake County, which is intended to reduce time and frustration for callers by acting as a single access point for a range of essential services.

"We think this will be a great resource for people in need," said Kristi Long, president and CEO of the United Way of Lake County. United Way initiated and is leading the effort.

United Way of Greater Atlanta introduced the service in 1997 and by the end of last year, 94% of the U.S. had access to 211 systems. In Illinois, it is available in some areas downstate as well as Rockford and Kane and McHenry counties.

Tens of thousands of callers in Lake County are expected to use the service in a given year, the organization estimates.

"We'll be the largest county in Illinois to implement 211 by far," according to Long.

More than 200 guests from government, health and human service organizations, the business community and elsewhere are expected to attend the official launch Tuesday morning at the Independence Grove visitor center near Libertyville.

The 211 system will offer access to assistance in various categories, such as housing, legal matters, education, food, or mental health and addiction.

"You need help, this is it," said Lake County Board member Steve Carlson, who chairs the board's health and community services committee and has championed the project.

"It affects lives. It saves lives," he said of the service.

Instead of spending time calling around to find an answer to a given need - and often being misdirected to the wrong place - calls to 211 will be answered by a live operator at a "contact center" in Camarillo, California.

The center operates with 30 "highly trained expert navigators" to connect callers to the right spot to meet their need, said Deanna Olmem, the 211 manager for the United Way of Lake County.

"That 24/7 aspect is really important," she added. Ninety percent of the contact center staff is bilingual in Spanish and staff has ready access to resources to interpret 150 languages.

Such a service has deep roots, beginning with a communitywide assessment by United Way in 2005.

"People said they didn't know where to go for help," Long said.

An annual guide to local agencies was developed, but the 20,000 copy runs quickly were spoken for.

"We knew it could be a lot better and easier to access," Long said of the 211 system.

About three years ago, agencies told United Way of Lake County they were being challenged by misdirected calls or calls for services they didn't provide, she added.

As consolidation made the use of outside call centers more economically realistic, United Way of Lake County about 18 months ago sought requests for proposals and contracted with Interface Children and Family Services.

Locally, scores of volunteers began work to build the system.

"It's been a huge collaboration across the county," said Lori Nerheim, who heads marketing and communications for United Way Lake County.

The annual budget is $435,000. Lake County is the biggest contributor at $90,000, and United Way of Lake County had pledged $50,000.

The remainder has been raised from a variety of corporate and government entities, including several townships.

Data to be collected will allow those involved with the system to determine by geographic areas what needs are being met but also which may need to be improved or implemented, Long said.

Lake County is ready to launch a 211 service as a one-stop shop to connect residents with an array of needed services. Courtesy of United Way Lake County
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