Donna Avey retired last month after more than 12 years and 56,000 calls at Alaska 2-1-1, United Way’s information and referral service for people in need.
Her call log and those of her colleagues would make a study in quiet, confidential service to neighbors unknown, where knowledge and skill fortify the kindness of strangers.
Starting with those 56,000 calls, Donna can summarize her career in numbers, and the numbers are impressive. When she retired she played an important role doing resource maintenance for 3,617 sites and 1,022 agencies, tracking and updating the links, numbers and availability of services that callers can reach through 2-1-1. That’s a database of help like no other in Alaska.
That’s also a database of information about health and social service needs like no other in Alaska, from trend-tracking over years to point-in-time takes.
Numbers count, but what Donna reflected on the most at the end of her career at 2-1-1 is the human connection at the heart of the work.
“A caller can be anyone,” she said. Often, people who have never needed to call for help before find themselves overwhelmed by trauma or some unexpected crisis; they don’t know what to do, how to do it, where to turn. “Asking for help is difficult. Most people like to make it on their own.”
With a combination of empathy and professionalism, 2-1-1 call specialists work with callers to figure out exactly what they need, help prioritize those needs and refer them to agencies that can offer help. It’s not easy; “unfortunately, not all of the referrals are exact matches.”
That’s why experience and regularly updated knowledge of the help available matters – if there’s no exact fit, the specialist knows what referral is the closest fit, and will serve to encourage and empower callers to work out their own resolutions. Some callers just need a little navigational aid. “My belief is that the caller knows best what those next steps are, but needs information that Alaska 2-1-1 has to contribute to their situation.”
Patience, empathy and efficiency are all hallmarks of 2-1-1’s work. So is strength, and the determination to give something when there’s nothing apparent to give. The toughest calls, Donna said, are those from the most vulnerable callers – the homeless person who hobbles out of the hospital with limited mobility, nowhere to go and no way to get there if there was somewhere to go. Those are the haunting calls, and also sometimes the brainstorming calls, when you work with the caller and try to figure out any way to help.
Callers also benefit from the real voice on the line. “The one thing that we consistently can offer despite how discouraging and frustrating the caller’s situation might be is a voice on the other side of the phone (not an automated phone system) and an empathetic heart and a listening ear.”
Metrics of such care may be hard to come by, but the message is bell-clear when, as Donna says, a caller remarks, “I feel so much better for having talked with you.” Sometimes, a listener who cares is the ally a caller needs to defeat despair, and that’s a start. Donna Avey knows what little time it can take to rekindle hope – her calls averaged 4 minutes, 45 seconds.
“A lot happens for a call taker in a short period of time,” she said.
Still, callers and 2-1-1 call takers share the frustration of dwindling resources – especially the frustration that comes of knowing it would take only a little help to keep someone from eviction, provide medical care or keep the lights on, and knowing even that small share isn’t available.
Given her experience of that frustration on the front line of need in Anchorage and Alaska, what would she change?
“Access,” she said.
Again, small things—bus passes, for example, so people struggling can get to medical appointments and job interviews. And she’d like to see more access to pre-emptive services, help that keeps people from falling into homelessness, or addiction, or absence from school. Fifty-six thousand calls have deepened her appreciation for an ounce of prevention versus a pound of cure.
As Donna said, there’s no perfect system. But her devotion to 2-1-1, for being what she called a “community connector” between those who need help and people who can help them, was based on both faith and data; she knew both the good and the gaps, and the power of listening.
“People need to be refreshed and loved and cared about,” she said. “Sometimes the door for that is 2-1-1.”