Over the past two years, operators working in Oregon’s 211info call center have handled a myriad of crises – extreme weather events, historic wildfires, a housing crisis – all set against the backdrop of and exacerbated by a global pandemic.
The team at 211info has served as Oregon Health Authority’s go-to public information line for COVID-19 testing, vaccines, wildfire evacuation response, and more. In addition to emergency statewide support, 211info has answered the call for tens of thousands of families across the state who struggle to find food, shelter, childcare, and financial assistance on a daily basis.
Kerry Hoeschen recently stepped into the role of Statewide Emergency Management Director, where she leads 211info’s emergency planning, processes and partnerships. Like two-thirds of the organization’s staff, Hoeschen came aboard after COVID-19 had reached Oregon.
While many calls Hoeschen and her team take are straightforward referral and information requests, others take an especially heavy toll on operators. She says, “The nature of the work means that more often than not, staff members don’t get to find out the outcome. The lack of closure can be really tough.”
“There are calls that sit with you because there’s just no help or no good help available – either because the resources aren’t there or the person is completely incapable of accessing them,” she explains.
Anthony Bencivengo has been taking calls for 211info since 2019 and currently works the after-hours line: “Sometimes I lie up at night wondering how many of the people I talked to today were actually able to get the help that they needed.”
Kelly Wheeler is 211info’s Emergency Programs Manager. Wheeler and her team take calls and track unmet needs across the state in relation to homeless services. She says it helps her to remember where 211info fits into the ecosystem of support services and to communicate resource gaps with the right agencies. “I try to remind myself we did all we can do. We’re just one piece of this…[And] we can show the state that these are the programs that need funding.”
Elected officials and policymakers from the local to state level rely on 211info for this data and gap analysis to better understand what is happening across Oregon.
The Oregon Legislature recently approved an additional $2M in funding to ensure 211info is able to continue to operate 24/7. Hoeschen says the additional funding means they have a team that’s prepared and ready to produce a robust and quick response for the next crisis that hits Oregon.
“Extreme weather events happen when they happen – and it’s not on our schedule,” says Hoeschen, noting Oregon’s recent historic April snowfall. “This funding means that if there’s a substantial earthquake at 11:58 p.m., someone is available to answer that line. It means we’ll be there.”
Help for the Helpers
While two-thirds of 211info’s staff have come on as a result of the pandemic, staff members like Wheeler – who has been with the nonprofit for almost 10 years – remember what it was like pre-COVID: “Things felt smaller and lighter in the ‘before-times’ and, although heavier now, are more impactful.”
Wheeler acknowledges that the work can be very stressful but says it helps to know she’s making an impact on the lives of those in her community.
Bencivengo agrees. “Self-care is extremely important in this job. I really make a point of taking good care of myself and giving myself time to clear my mind.” For Bencivengo, that means going for a walk after work each day and finding connections via 211info’s employee affinity groups. “The LGBTQ+ and Spanish Speakers affinity groups meet once a month and are an appreciated oasis,” Bencivengo adds.
Bencivengo, Hoeschen, and Wheeler describe a supportive work environment where team members are encouraged to prioritize their own mental health. One call center manager begins each shift by leading his team through yoga stretches. Others send around funny animal videos and memes. Client kudos and thank-you messages are shared broadly with staff, and 211info offers all of its employees mental health days and an additional week of paid time off.
Hoeschen also recognizes the importance of celebrating the wins. She recalls walking a 75-year-old through the vaccine enrollment process. “She was very emotional at the prospect of being reunited with her grandkids after almost two years.”
Hoeschen says the team has fielded many calls just like this one: “We saw a lot with vaccine roll-out, especially with the older population. Our team essentially became tech support.”
Bencivengo says they’ve learned how to empathize and comfort and help people find solutions. “This job teaches you a lot about how to work with people. It’s grown my heart and it’s grown my empathy. I wouldn’t have chosen anything else to be doing with my last couple of years.”
Bencivengo says some of the most gratifying calls are from people who have used the service before. “I recently took a call from someone who said they called us when they first came to Oregon, looking for emergency shelter and again when they were looking for help with a security deposit and access to stable housing. The third time they reached out they were housed and had kids and were now looking for childcare. Each time they called, they were in a better place – and each time they’d gotten resources.”
More to Give
Bencivengo currently works the after-hours line and says the work has taught them a lot about the realities of living with a very low income. “For a while I did both 211 and tenant organizing with an all-volunteer tenant union, helping tenants understand and advocate for their rights. I also worked with tenants to push for legislative change and to organize unions in their buildings. I found it deeply cathartic to help people navigate within the system while also working to change the system,” Bencivengo explains, adding, “I think it’s important to understand how the system is working on the ground. I feel like I’m much better prepared to work for systemic change.”
For many of the frontline workers taking calls, this work is deeply personal. Wheeler’s brother has experienced bouts of homelessness and substance abuse.
During one of Oregon’s extreme cold events, Wheeler’s team member James helped an unhoused individual with transportation to a shelter: “We were having trouble finding this person as they were walking around to stay warm. They had also indicated that they have congestive heart failure, which makes the cold weather potentially life-threatening.
“I was watching the chat and noticed that this person was in my neighborhood, within a few blocks of my home,” James recalls. “I asked our management team if I could go find this person and wait with them until transportation arrived. This is not our normal protocol, but I felt the risk involved and the proximity to me warranted taking other steps.”
James connected the individual to 211info’s homeless services and mobile housing teams. A week later, the individual recognized James and approached him with a message of gratitude: “You saved my life.”
It’s these experiences that keep the 211info team coming back day after day. Wheeler put it simply: “As long as I have something to offer, I’m going to keep doing this work.”