Whether in the midst of a natural disaster or simply when attempting to obtain needed human services, members of the community may at times find it difficult to identify and access critical resources and assistance.
Similarly, public officials and responders often encounter challenges in reaching – or reaching out to – those most in need.
Now, thanks to a donation from Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island (BCBSRI), the United Way’s 2-1-1 program will have a unique means to improve its own visibility and ability to physically connect people with assistance under virtually any circumstance.
“What a wonderful opportunity for 2-1-1 to expand,” said Anthony Maione, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, during a gathering Monday to unveil the program’s new Outreach Van. “This is a huge advantage for United Way.”
Established in 2007, United Way 2-1-1 in Rhode Island is a 24-hour hotline providing information and referrals for a broad range of services, including financial assistance for heat, electricity and housing costs, care for aging parents, food assistance, child care and medical care.
Maione said in recent months, the program fielded its millionth phone call, a figure that includes more than 208,000 calls in the last year.
Thanks to the new van, which was previously used by BCBSRI to provide mobile health and wellness screenings, the program will now be able to travel throughout the state and offer mobile private one-on-one counseling and referrals.
Maione praised BCBSRI for the donation, saying it was the company that first approached United Way regarding interest in the gift.
Jay Burdick, a benefit specialist with the 2-1-1 program and social worker in the state for more than four decades, said the vehicle has already been given a name – the “I&RV,” a reference to the shorthand for “information and referral” services and the van’s design.
Monday’s unveiling ceremony and public wellness gathering at BCBSRI’s retail location at Cowesett Crossings included remarks from United Way and BCBSRI officials, tours of the van, free flu shots and counseling of benefits eligibility and coming changes in the health care marketplace.
Peter Andruszkiewicz, president and CEO of BCBSRI, told those present the donation of the van represents a “natural progression” of his company’s relationship with United Way.
“The good work that United Way does is amazing,” he said.
As BCBSRI approaches its 75th anniversary in 2014, Andruszkiewicz said, the company sees the gift of the van as part of a long tradition of working to improve the health of all Rhode Islanders.
“This donation supports that long-term vision,” he said.
In addition to providing a mobile resource for connecting with human services, the van has the capability of serving as a mobile command center during times of emergency.
Referencing the flooding and storms that have impacted portions of the state in recent years, Maione said having a resource such as the 2-1-1 van would have made an enormous, positive difference in the response to those incidents.
“We are the state’s go-to contact point” in helping those affected during a disaster, he said.
Burdick said the van will have four basic uses – United Way outreach, 2-1-1 outreach, an increasingly formalized “here to help” campaign and disaster response.
Burdick and Maione both praised the face-to-face outreach the van will make possible, noting that for many, more traditional means of communication still have much appeal in a world increasingly reliant on technology.
“Some people want low-tech,” Maione said. “They want to see us.”
Joanne McGunagle, executive director of the Cranston-based Comprehensive Community Action Program, said resources such as the 2-1-1 van are highly valuable for agencies like her own. She said 17 percent of calls made to 2-1-1 are referred to one of the eight community action programs in the state.
“We deal with the same populations they deal with,” she said.
In the event of an emergency, McGunagle said the van’s ability to bring resources and personnel directly to a scene would make intake work and the transfer of information to agencies such as CCAP a much quicker and more efficient process.
“It’s a win-win,” she said.
For more information regarding 2-1-1 or United Way of Rhode Island, visit www.liveunitedri.org.