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Call center will help county residents find social services

The United Way of Yakima County has donated $150,000 to help the non-profit orgnization People for People open a call center to help residents find health, human and social services in the county.

The call center, which will open in February, will be accessable by dialing 211 on any phone.

Similar to 911, 211 has been designated by the Federal Communication Commission as a number to provide easy access to social services.

Amy Peters, project coordinator for the 211 call center, said despite misconceptions that the number is only for people in lower income brackets, anyone who needs help can dial the number and access a database of useful services in their county.

"This is a database that serves everybody," she said.

From people who need help in donating money to a charity, to people who don't have enough food to eat, 211 operators will be able to connect callers to these services when the call center comes online in early 2006.

Peters said the call center will be staffed by People for People, which is hiring staff members to take calls.

Four people will be hired to take calls, with two more hired to do database work for the call center, she said.

She hopes at least two of the call center operators will be bilingual.

Call center workers will be paid by money donated to the call center, and any additional funding the center receives in the future.

Peters said the call center will cost about $313,000 to operate in Yakima County alone in 2006.

United Way's donation helps defray the cost of operation, but Peters said more funding will be needed if the call center is to remain open into 2007.

She said People for People is looking at a variety of funding sources, including state and federal money for the future.

"We know it will be very difficult to get any state or federal funding in 2006," Peters said. "We're looking at this year as the year we need to make it on our own."

When the call center opens, it will handle calls from Benton, Franklin, Kittitas and Walla Walla counties, in addition to Yakima County.

Peters said a variety of groups in those other counties have contributed money to run the call center.

Cities, counties and service clubs have all contributed to the cause, Peters said.

"It's just been a variety of sources," she said of the funding.

According to information from People for People, 211 is currently available in 46 percent of the country.

Peters said it has been helpful, especially in dealing with disasters in the past year.

"We know that 211 has been absolutely essential in helping people through disasters like Hurricane Katrina," she said.

The number serves to augment numbers like 911, which often become overwhelmed during a disaster by people calling in non-emergency situations simply because they have no where else to turn for help, Peters said.

In this state, she said the number could be used by the Department of Transportation, for example, if a major snowstorm occurs and a large number of roads are closed as a result.

Ultimately, the call center in Yakima will serve all of Central Washington and will be called the Greater Columbia Region.

In addition to the counties already mentioned, it will include Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Klickitat, Lincoln and Okanogan counties.

The call center will also become one of eight in the state, serving all but seven counties.

In the future, Peters said the 211 database will be available online at 211.org.

For more information, or to donate money, contact People for People at (509) 248-6726.

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