Friday, February 24, 2006

Dialing 2-1-1 solves perplexing puzzle

Entry by: Stacey Oelrich, United Way's First Call 2-1-1 Program Coordinator

Passing the time one Sunday morning, I tried my hand at the latest pop culture craze. I picked up a paper and pencil and went to work on Soduko, a logic puzzle.

Soduko has nine columns and nine rows which are then grouped in three by three blocks within the large square. The object is to fill each blank cell with the numbers one through nine, without duplicating a number within each nine cell column, row or block.

I worked on this perplexing puzzle for 45 minutes before conceding defeat. There was just too much information for my mind to process and make sense of. I don’t do well with numbers, and even though this is a logic puzzle, the complexity of numbers swimming in front of me was too overwhelming.

The frustration I felt is similar to that of wading through phone books and directories looking for services for each complex problem we face every day. There are just so many options to choose from when searching for the right department or organization. But for years, we’ve had a way to bypass the tedious search for uncertain outcomes. All Marshfield Area residents had to do was dial First Call for Information’s phone number. People could make one call to trained information and referral specialists to find answers.

First Call for Information had three different phone numbers to access the same service: a toll free, Marshfield and South Wood County number. But those numbers, even the toll free option, were just too much to remember.

It’s been said we break down long strings of data into smaller, more manageable groups, so our brains will be more apt to recall it. Around the country, United Ways and call centers have adopted a new way to provide America with information and referral. Because a three-digit number is easier to remember, we have changed our number to 2-1-1.

United Way’s First Call 2-1-1 provides the same services as it predecessor: First Call for Information. With one call, you are connected to free, confidential information to answer your questions. Since the national 211 Day, February 11, 2006, 139 million Americans have access to 2-1-1 services, that’s 46 percent of the U.S. population.

Fourteen states have 100 percent coverage, with the rest in implementation or planning stages. In Wisconsin, 15 counties have coverage and the remaining counties are in the process of rolling out their new number.

Marshfield Area United Way and United Way of South Wood County partner to provide Wood, Clark and Adams counties with 2-1-1 services. Marathon and Portage counties rolled out their service recently as well.

Numbers can sometimes over complicate simple concepts. I gave up on Soduko before I found the solution. We know finding answers are hard enough without struggling with confusing numbers. Dialing 2-1-1 or visiting will connect you to answers in one simple call.

And 2-1-1 has been 24/7 since December … now there are numbers I can handle.