Interview with Sherri Vainavicz
What is your role with 2-1-1 and what does 2-1-1 do?
I am the Director of Programs & Services at Heart of West Michigan United Way. I have been doing this work for over 20 years.
2-1-1 is an information and referral line. We connect residents to resources available in the community to meet the needs they have. Examples include food, rental assistance, disaster assistance, COVID-19 testing sites, summer camps, and activities for children.
My team covers 14 counties, including Newaygo County, but we are linked to a statewide system. If a community experiences a crisis, like Midland and their flooding, the other call centers have access to the information and can still assist the community.
We have a total of 11 employees. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and calls went up, we hired 2 temporary staff. We were very fortunate in that another local agency wished to keep some of their employees, but due to the nature of their work, they couldn’t do their job for a few months. These people were lent to us to train and use in our call center and that was amazing.
What do you see as the growing needs in Newaygo County since the pandemic started?
The number one need has and continues to be food assistance. The volume of calls has not wavered. Food is such a basic need.
The great thing is that the community, through the food pantries and mobile food pantries has stepped up to serve. It is great to see how Newaygo County, particularly organizations like the Fremont Area Community Foundation and TrueNorth Community Services, has responded.
When the pandemic hit and the state shut-down, that is when the calls really started picking up. April was the busiest for folks calling in. People were laid-off of work for a couple of weeks, unemployment was hard to get through to, and we were getting calls from people who were in need and frustrated regarding anything COVID related.
Michigan 2-1-1 designed a dashboard for the whole state. You can narrow it down by county so that you can see what the needs are in the community. It is a great tool.
How do organizations keep their information updated?
We have 3 full time resource managers who keep the information in our area up-to-date. The past few months have been busy - we were sometimes changing programs hour-by-hour. There is 1 staff person who is dedicated to a six-county consortium, including Newaygo County, who is on the phone with the agencies to keep us up-to-date. We have been in constant contact with our agencies. All of our updates are done electronically.
I got some help from a call center who has been through hurricanes to set up additional ways to manage information. We kept a rumors spreadsheet and tracked state executive orders, emergency management information, updates from the health department and more. We were trying to keep on top of everything that was happening. I appreciate being part of the NC3 because it has helped us stay on top of all of the information.
How do people find out about 2-1-1 and what has the biggest unmet need been?
This pandemic hit a population of individuals who have never been in a position to reach out to social service organizations. The Governor, almost every time she did updates, mentioned 2-1-1. This would flood our office with calls. The Unemployment Insurance Agency was also referring people to dial 2-1-1. We also rely on our partner agencies to get the word out.
The biggest unmet need in all the counties in Michigan has to do with taxes. When we shut down in March, we were not through the tax season. Many of our households depend on their home heating credit and earned income tax credit. People are still trying to get their income taxes figured out. Many households had to wait on getting their stimulus check because at first it was based on getting your 2019 taxes. Then the rules on how to get your stimulus check changed a few more times. Also, there are many people without access to computers or the Internet. Or, the elderly people who don’t know how to search or fill out forms online. It was a mess.
The last four months have been overwhelming. As long as we can all work together to make sure people are getting their needs met, that is the most important thing to me.
Ways to access 2-1-1:
Michigan 2-1-1 / www.mi211.org
Heart of Michigan United Way / www.hwmuw.org/211
United Way of the Lakeshore / www.unitedwaylakeshore.org/call-2-1-1