Information service 211 expands coverage to include Brookings County

By SARA BERTSCH Managing Editor

Just like someone can call 911 in an emergency, people in Brookings County can now call 211 to access information about the community, health and human services and government, all for free.

The three-digit phone number was assigned by the Federal Communications Commission for the purpose of providing quick and easy access to information about health and human services said Heidi Gullickson, executive director of Brookings Area United Way.

“With Brookings growing, as we have been, and having all the students come in, we have a lot of new residents come into our community and it’s an easy way for them to find out about the town they are now living in,” Gullickson said.

The free, confidential service launched for Brookings County on February 11, 2015, which is also National 211 Day.

“It can be anything from questions from ‘where can I get my driver’s license renewed’ to ‘what are the hours of the food pantry,’ or ‘I have a friend in a domestic abuse situation, how can I help her,” Gullickson said.

Trained professionals answer phone calls 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The professionals that answer the calls assess the needs of the caller, determine their options and provide appropriate programs and services, intervene in crisis situations and advocate for the caller as needed.

“211 is an easy number that if you have any sort of question and you are not sure where to call to find out you can try 211,” Gullickson said. “If they don’t have that answer they can probably refer you to some place that will have that answer.”

Even if the callers are from Brookings County, all of the calls are answered in Sioux Falls at the Helpline Center.

Taryn Sietsema, resource development director at the Helpline Center, said that the distance is not an issue.

“It doesn’t matter if you are an hour away, as we have an extensive database that is continually updated to maintain accuracy for Brookings County that we utilize for all calls to 211,” Sietsema said.  “We work with social services providers and nonprofits to make sure information is accurate and updated in a timely manner so that callers get the help they need.”

According to Sietsema, the Helpline Center has been serving the Sioux Falls community since 1974. The center was formerly known as the Volunteer & Information Center and was answered by volunteers.

“Through the years, the agency was formalized with staff, grew to 24 hours, seven days a week service and was the first location west of the Mississippi River to begin 211 service,” Sietsema said.

Expanding the service to Brookings County has resulted in 73 calls from Brookings and the surrounding communities.

“It’s nice to see the smaller communities are using this service as well. I was pleased with a little over 70 calls just in two weeks,” Gullickson said.

The 211 service is accessible for anybody, including college students. 

“So if you come in as a freshman or you transfer in, the community is completely different, so it’s a nice way to find out about things that are going on and where to go to find those resources,” Gullickson said. “And then as college students from being a college student to after graduation, hopefully finding a job and maybe staying in Brookings as a regular resident.”

The United Way had been looking to join the 211 service for a few years now. Conversations with the community and some of the agencies brought up the recurring theme and need for the service in the area.

“We know that Brookings has a lot of great nonprofits and assistance out there, and if somebody can’t find what they are looking for then it doesn’t do any good,” Gullickson said. “So the 211 helps wrap all of that together and give people one place to go to get the information.”

The Helpline Center also has a site with more information about 211 and all the services provided.

“211 can help people of all ages,” Sietsema said. “If you’re looking for assistance with a problem and you don’t know where to turn, or you simply want information on a particular human service issue, 211 is for you.”