As United Way of Lewis County’s newest hire, Ryan Cole finds the people and organizations in Centralia, Chehalis and beyond who are always willing to help out. His role as the Community Resource Coordinator has him accounting for and updating the area’s resources. This information is provided by the outstanding organizations working to serve those in the community who might need a hand. “I love the comradery in Lewis County,” he says. “You see it with United Way, how people are so willing to volunteer, donate and give their time. It’s really just special here.”
With a bold goal to lift 30% of families out of poverty by 2030, United Way focuses its efforts on three key areas. One of those is access to resources. Cole and United Way do all they can to make sure residents have easy access to needed resources through 211.
211 is an information referral database service that connects people to life-changing resources. “If you need something like access to a food pantry or a safe place to stay for the evening, you can call 211 and they will connect you to the nearest resource,” says Cole.
The 211 helpline focuses on helping people reach and maintain self-sufficiency. “Many people, especially in Lewis County, are part of the ALICE (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed) population,” says Cole. “Thirty-three percent of Lewis County families are just one accident away from losing everything, but they are also one or two obstacles away from reaching self-sufficiency and getting out of poverty. It’s there as a resource so if you need rapid rehousing or that one little thing to get you over that last hump, 211 can be it. It’s huge for lifting families out of poverty.”
When citizens call 211 for an immediate need, the call center specialists look for solutions to the source of the problem. “Maybe you need help with rent right now but need something else like work or a healthier living situation,” says Cole. “They connect you to B, C and D not just A. They are trained to find all the resources for you in a single call so that you are not jumping through hoops and calling back several times.”
Cole recalls a woman calling 211 for other resources and ended up filling out a form for food stamps. “These calls take whatever path they need to take to meet all the needs of the caller,” he says.
Through open lines of communication with agencies in the area, Cole encourages organizations and businesses to share information with others about 211 but also to reach out if they have a way to help the community. “You think your agency has direct services you can offer?” he says. “Call, come by the office or email me. It’s a very simple form for new agencies to fill it out. If you want to be in 211, just reach out to me.”
One of the challenges Cole faces is connecting east Lewis County to services. “I think this is true in every county in the country, but transportation is a barrier always,” he says. “The travel is not ideal. We want to make sure people in east Lewis County can access resources in the Twin Cities.”
Cole finds Twin Transit key to the conversation regarding gaps in public transportation. “Joe Clark and his team are on top of it and have so many great things in the pike,” he says. “They have been so helpful, even just having conversations with me about what the community needs and what we see.”
The 211 center reports the number of callers monthly, including zip codes and the top resources people are trying to access. With an increase in callers last month, the area’s top needs included access to local transportation, holiday assistance and utilities or other basic needs.
“In my role and with the call center, we are trained to identify the gaps in services,” says Cole. “They report to me that we had X number of callers this week that say they can’t get a ride. Then my role is to talk to Joe and do community outreach. Twin Transit has been huge in not only being open to communicating with me but also being a champion for 211. Their support has been awesome.”
Cole is optimistic about the uptick in callers last month. “Hopefully that means we are connecting with people who didn’t know that 211 existed and this is their first time calling,” he says. “People are engaging and trying to find these resources.”
“Everyone in the community that I’ve spoken to have been so supportive,” says Cole. “At United Way’s campaign presentations, we talk about 30 by 30 or early childhood education but when I talk about 211, people just kind of light up. We serve people. When I am in schools, we are talking to a lot of the ALICE population that don’t always know there is a resource like 211 out there. People are just so supportive of this and it’s just great, so I am thankful for the community.”
211’s call center hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday to Friday and their list of resources is available at wa211.org.
United Way of Lewis County
450 N.W. Pacific Ave.