Workers at the United Way of the Midlands 211 call center were on the job Monday, just like they are every hour of every day.
They were there even though the furnace in their building was broken, and the temperature outside was in the single digits.
Workers bundled up in winter coats and gloves, and call center director Lena Thompson let them leave early to work from home.
The center couldn't just shut down. Operators take up to 350 calls each day from people in need across the state and in part of Iowa, seeking help for everything from paying rent to finding a counselor to connecting with a food pantry. The center takes calls 24 hours a day, every day.
“We consider ourselves a one-stop shop for health and human services and nonprofit referrals,” Thompson said.
The center is one of several Omaha agencies that partner with The World-Herald's Goodfellows fund, which provides one-time emergency aid and holiday meal certificates to needy people in the community.
It's a lifesaver for those who can't research agencies on a computer or make multiple calls for help. Dial 211 and someone will find answers for you, Thompson said.
About 50 percent of the Omaha center's callers are looking for help with housing and utility payments, she said.
That makes the partnership with Goodfellows a natural. About 80 percent of the charity's donations go toward providing emergency assistance, and of that, the payments are almost evenly split between housing and utility payments, said Joel Long, executive director of Goodfellows and The World-Herald's director of marketing.
Every dollar donated to Goodfellows goes back to the community. The World-Herald pays all administrative costs.
Though 211 usually provides referrals to callers, workers actually handle the application process for those who may qualify for Goodfellows aid, Thompson said. They obtain financial information from applicants and call utilities or landlords to get payment histories. If someone can't pay because of a medical problem, they ask for documentation.
Once everything is in order, she said, 211 employees give the information to Goodfellows officials, who send the payments directly to a utility or landlord.
Thompson said her employees also help distribute the charity's holiday meal vouchers.
The center has 13 employees, including Thompson, and currently has three part-time job openings.
It handles about 93,000 calls a year, Thompson said, including some contract work for other referral centers. It started about 30 years ago as First Call for Help and became a 211 center 10 years ago as part of the Alliance of Information and Referral Systems, a nationwide group that certifies referral centers and provides training standards for workers.
About 90 percent of the U.S. population can dial 211. The service also is available in Canada and Puerto Rico.