By Tracy Correa
FRESNO – Each year, nearly 25,000 people in Fresno County call United Way’s 2-1-1 call center – a help line dedicated to helping residents with everything from food to housing.
The call center directs people in need to the appropriate social service agency. But not every United Way office can afford to provide the service, especially in the Central Valley where staffing and funding are limited.
Today (Nov. 7), PG&E stepped in to help by providing $30,000 to launch the 2-1-1 Central Valley Call Center. The center, housed in Fresno, will soon begin handling calls for Stanislaus County and others in addition to Fresno County. And, Fresno United Way officials are also hoping to do the same for San Joaquin County. It marks the first time multiple United Way chapters have collaborated to provide the service. (Click here to see a video about the 2-1-1 service.)
United Way couldn’t embark on the new Central Valley 2-1-1 network without help from PG&E, said Michael Alexander, CEO of United Way of Fresno County during today’s announcement at the United Way office. “We are excited for this new relationship,” said Alexander.
He said handling calls for more communities means that fewer people are calling 9-1-1 when they have a social service need. “What we want them to do is not call 9-1-1,” he said.
The largest number of calls to the help line are from people in need of food or housing. But 2-1-1 also hears from people struggling to pay utility bills and operators help connect them with PG&E assistance programs.
Ezra Garrett, PG&E’s vice president of community relations and chief sustainability officer, said United Way is helping PG&E too. “In a lot of ways, you are helping to connect with our customers.”
Garrett commended United Way for the work that it does and noted that the organization is traditionally the most popular choice among PG&E employees for Campaign for the Community, the utility’s annual employee giving program.
Creating a Central Valley Call Center network is a major accomplishment, said Francine DiCiano, CEO of United Way of Stanislaus County in Modesto.
DiCiano said for four years, her office ran its own 2-1-1 call center. But last year, they had to cancel the program last year because it could no longer afford the $350,000 a year to fund it. The service was outsourced to United Way in Ventura County saving $150,000. However, she said having the calls answered in Southern California isn’t been ideal because the operators there can’t relate to the unique needs of Central Valley residents.
“We’re really excited about this collaborative,” she said, noting that joining forces to form a Central Valley 2-1-1 network makes sense. “This is a cost-effective way to do business.”
Alexander agreed. He also said that Fresno’s call center office – which has 5 employees – will be adding a few more workers. And there are plans to provide the service 24 hours a day out of Fresno; currently, calls after 8 p.m. are directed to Ventura County.
“We see this as an exciting time. We hope to keep the service in the Valley where they know about the Valley residents’ unique needs,” he said.
E-mail Tracy Correa at Tracy.Correa@pge.com