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United Way 211 celebrates 20 years of helping callers in crisis

February 8, 2022


This free information and referral service is poised to improve even more lives with significant programmatic advancements coming soon

This month, United Way of Northeast Florida celebrates the 20th anniversary of its information and referral service, United Way 211. Founded in 2002, United Way 211 is an integrated information and referral helpline and online database that connects people of all ages and walks of life to essential health, human and social services. United Way plans to celebrate this anniversary on social media and with staff this week, culminating Friday, Feb. 11, known nationally as 211 Day.

Fielding more than 100,000 calls annually from individuals and families seeking services, United Way 211 operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The service connects callers for free to trained information and referral specialists, who provide up-to-date information on and referrals to available community services such as food pantries, mental-health resources, transportation, rent and utility assistance, and more.

In Northeast Florida, United Way 211 serves nine counties: Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Nassau, Baker, Putnam, Columbia, Suwannee and Hamilton. To get help now, dial 2-1-1, or call 904-632-0600 on your cell phone or landline. To access the online database, visit unitedwaynefl.org/get-help. There is no cost to those seeking services.

“From ‘hello’ to help, we’re here for you,” said Jeff Winkler, United Way’s head of basic needs. “United Way 211 has the unique advantage of having approximately 1,300 community resources in our services database at any given moment. Our information and referral specialists are highly skilled, compassionate team members who will ensure you know about and can access any resources available. If you’re struggling financially, physically or mentally, we encourage you to call.”

According to the most recent ALICE Report, nearly 40 percent of Northeast Florida residents struggle to make ends meet – and that was prior to the start of the pandemic. Last year, United Way 211 staff answered more than 111,600 calls for help, completing over 96,400 referrals to available community resources and services. This was a 17% jump in calls compared to 2020. During the height of the pandemic economic fallout in 2020, United Way 211 saw a nearly 74% increase year-over-year in calls compared to 2019.

“It’s heartbreaking to think about how many people in Northeast Florida struggle to put food on their table, pay rent, afford medications or any number of other challenges we hear about regularly through our call lines,” said Winkler. “What gives me hope – what gives our community hope – is that a resource like United Way 211 is always there for them in their moments of crisis.”

United Way has a long history of connecting callers in crisis to the resources they need. The foundation of United Way 211 began in 1985 as “First Call for Help,” a partnership with Lutheran Social Services and the City of Jacksonville. Eleven years later in 1996, full administration of the call center transferred to United Way, and the initiative was rebranded “United Way’s First Call.” Then, in February 2002, the call center became part of the national 211 network, and United Way 211 was officially established in Northeast Florida.

Since its genesis, United Way 211 has worked to improve its technological infrastructure, staffing and quality of service. Over the years, this included streamlining the referral process for emergency financial assistance, reducing call wait times, implementing a call-back feature and improving its online resources database. In 2019, Mission United launched in partnership with United Way 211 to provide specialized care coordination to active military, veterans and their families in Northeast Florida. Mostly recently, United Way 211 introduced texting as an additional way to get in touch. Callers can now text HELLO to 211904 anytime of day to be connected to an information and referral specialist.

Later this year, United Way 211 will become part of a national suicide prevention strategy that will allow anyone in the U.S. to connect to a suicide de-escalation specialist with just a three-digit dial, 9-8-8. United Way 211 also plans to add a chat feature to its available ways residents can get in touch with service.

“We are very excited about the future of United Way 211, and we are committed to responding to and addressing the growing needs of our growing community,” said Rosi Melendez, head of community impact and strategic investments at United Way. “While we know very well at United Way long-term community challenges take more than one service, solution or resource, we are confident the direction United Way 211 is headed can only get us closer to a better, stronger Northeast Florida.”

United Way is grateful for the support of thousands of donors who sustain United Way 211 year after year. United Way would like to especially acknowledge our longtime partnership and funding from the City of Jacksonville as well as the Florida Department of Children and Families and Lutheran Services of Florida.

United Way 211 is one impactful component of a strategic portfolio of community solutions designed by United Way and its partners to help local residents and families meet their basic needs and live more prosperous lives. If you or your company is interested in supporting United Way 211, please contact Pamela Ducas, United Way’s director of corporate engagement, at pamelad@nulluwnefl.org.

“United Way 211 is an impressive example of a system of partners working selflessly together to improve the lives of others, and we are so grateful for the staff, partners and supporters who make this important work possible,” said Michelle Braun, president and CEO, United Way of Northeast Florida. “Perhaps it’s cliché to say this, but life-changing help really is just a phone call away.”

For more information on United Way 211 or to access the online database, visit unitedwaynefl.org/get-help. To get help now, dial 2-1-1, call 904-632-0600 on your cell phone or landline, or text HELLO to 211904. Information on United Way of Northeast Florida can be found at unitedwaynefl.org or on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.