published Friday, December 20th, 2013

Cook: The place where phones always ring

The woman has four kids. Her husband ran off. She's looking for work, but nobody's looking back. They cut the power off in her home weeks ago. The electric company's charging $900 to get it turned back on.

And it's six days until Christmas.

Who does she call for help?

"Two-one-one Neediest Cases, how can I help you?" Diane Jarvis says over the phone.

Jarvis is one of four information and referral specialists inside United Way's 211 call center, the closest thing to a North Pole we've got for people who've run out of all other options.

Someone needing food? A family can't pay their light bill? A veteran without medicine? A retired couple needing help signing up for health insurance? A daughter whose dad just got diagnosed with Alzheimer's?

They call 211.

"We educate people on how to survive," Jarvis said.

United Way's 211 is the referral system, the first point of contact, for people in need. Jarvis uses a computer database that many other service providers are plugged into. Jarvis gets the name and birth date of a caller and immediately can see where and how many services he or she has accessed recently. It helps prevent fraud, and also streamlines things: The right people are directed to the right agencies at the right time.

"The need for food is going through the roof right now," Jarvis said.

The 211 program serves 16 counties across Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. Nearly half of all callers have a high school education; nearly half are unemployed. This time of year, they also take calls for the Times Free Press Neediest Cases Fund, which provides help for those whose needs may fall outside the normal range of services.

Last year, readers donated $57,000 to Neediest Cases, which helped hundreds of people. The fund, which was established 100 years ago, will do the same thing this year for people in need.

Like the woman with four kids, a no-account husband and a $900 light bill.

Or it may help the guy who was planning to use his last paycheck to buy his kids Christmas presents, but then his car broke down.

And this: "We had a guy from the Cherokee Indian nation call. A veteran, the guy had been in the military for 20 years. He was working, but got his hours cut. He needed $142 in prescriptions for his wife."

Then this: "She was elderly and disabled and her husband has cancer. They have lots of medical bills and need help with paying their property taxes."

Last year, 211 operators answered the phone 36,425 times, helping 47,796 individuals and 24,428 households. Sure, they get calls from folks trying to play the system -- "you see the best and worst of people," Jarvis said -- but the vast majority of callers are looking for help with basic needs. Food. Water. Shelter.

The phones -- they open the lines from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays -- do not stop ringing. Literally. As soon as one call ends, the next one rings.

"If the phone quits ringing, we have to check to see if it's broken," Jarvis said.

When the tornadoes hit in April 2011, Jarvis went out and set up an aid system to help primary responders. In times like that, the need is quick, immediate and obvious. These days, what she sees is the slow-moving disaster called poverty.

"When the tornado hits, you can see the devastation," she said. "When a financial tornado hits, it's less obvious."

It all makes me think of this teenager named Jaime, who received nearly $300 last year from the Neediest Cases Fund plus extra donations -- many of you were hugely generous -- to help pay her bills. These days, she's enrolled in college, working full time and taking care of her child and sister.

I ran into her the other day.

She was asking how she could pay it all forward.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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