This is the first in a series of blogs, crafted from interviews with David in his final days as president and CEO of United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County.
Reconfiguring Day of Caring during Hurricanes Francis and Ivan-- ‘The Arby’s Effect’
Recently NC 2-1-1 was recognized for our overwhelming response to our fellow citizens in the eastern part of the state during Hurricane Florence. We’ve had some practice. I remember one of the first times we responded to flooding in western North Carolina during Hurricanes Ivan and Francis. Back then, 2-1-1 went by the name “First Call for Help”, had been in the community 25 years, and built great partnerships with law enforcement, healthcare providers and service providers that continues to this day. Between both of those storms, our call center was taking somewhere around 1,000 extra calls a day. At the same time, we were scheduled to hold our two biggest events of the year - Campaign Kickoff and Day of Caring. I was so engrossed with that; I was stuck in the mindset of ‘We’ve got to have it. We always have it.’ but then I talked to John Ellis at the Diana Wortham Theater asking him if we could move Kickoff inside given the storms and he said, “David, we don’t even have potable water here right now.”
Well, we had already ordered 1,000 box lunches from Arbys so that we could feed our Day of Caring volunteers. Our call center staff had let us know that our first responders had been dealing with flooding from those storms all night in both Swannanoa/Black Mountain and in Enka/Candler. So we called the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other organizations in the area and dispatched these 1,000 lunches to first responders either for their own use or for families that had been affected by the storm. I can remember so clearly standing in the hallway feeling good about that, then looking around realizing we had no food to feed everyone in the office. We ended up ordering pizza and coining the phrase ‘The Arby’s Effect’, which is when you give out everything you have with nothing left to feed your own people. It ended up being a different kind of Day of Caring - reshaped and reformed really to respond to our community’s needs at that moment.
In the Era of Digital Information, Remembering the Value of NC 2-1-1
What happens when natural disasters like Florence and Ivan occur, is that folks who typically don’t need to call and ask for help, are calling. That helps people realize the value to everybody, and I think that does help overall awareness in a tremendous way.
Today, many of us think that everything we need is only a quick Google search or Facebook inquiry away but it’s important to remember that’s not the case for a lot of people. Many of the folks who are using 2-1-1 are often less digitally connected, more isolated or have less support. There are often other obstacles like mental, emotional or health problems that make it hard for them to take the steps they need to take.
So what could be seen as a simple referral, is really also now about information, referral AND advocacy, which is so important. That advocacy piece is at the heart of our referral specialist work that can’t be measured in metrics alone--the compassion, active listening, and the follow-up that they do-- those are the things that will continue to make NC 2-1-1 more and more important.
I remember when we first titled our information referral center as ‘First Call for Help’ and got the number, 252-HELP (4357), and everyone was so excited. It was branded and could be remembered. Well, that was taken a step further during Hurricane Floyd in ‘99 when Governor Hunt gave the three-digit 2-1-1 number to United Way of North Carolina to use. We all wanted that to happen. Having a three-digit number to use makes it easy to remember and quick to dial in an emergency. Back then, it was not available by cell phones so landlines were the only ones that could use it. I remember somewhere around 2007/2008, we worked with a local legislator who made a few phone calls to the cell phone companies to enable mobile callers to access 2-1-1. So it’s interesting to remember that something we see now as ubiquitous, wasn’t then. That was a stepping stone, a turning point for access.
Looking Ahead: Natural Disaster Response, Social Determinants of Health and Beyond
The past doesn’t necessarily predict the future, but if we look at it, weather events are becoming more frequent and stronger. There’s no doubt that natural disasters will continue to play a big part in 2-1-1’s work across the region and the state. New opportunities also lay on the horizon. The purchase of Mission Health by HCA and the development of the Dogwood Trust to address the social determinants of health is an incredible opportunity for our western region.
When we look at the kinds of calls that come into 2-1-1, so many are aligned with housing, transportation, hunger, access to healthcare and mental health --- and all are social determinants of health. It is exciting to think that the Dogwood Trust, alone or in partnership with other statewide foundations will be able to invest in solutions around these issues in western North Carolina. This could eventually change the landscape of service delivery in our area and help NC 2-1-1 connect even more people who call 2-1-1 to better kinds of support.
The fact is that NC 2-1-1 is a tool that anyone can access from the palm of their hand. It is a 24/7 system to connect people to these resources - I’m really hopeful that 2-1-1 could become an even more robust service in our region and across the state. There have also been a tremendous number of leadership changes in our community in recent months. I’m sure when our new CEO Dan Leroy joins our staff in May, he’ll appreciate the role of NC 2-1-1 and the opportunity to continue to share this with all of the other new leaders within our county and city governments, with providers, with law enforcement, with health systems, etc.
And in my transition in terms of retirement, I will remain a champion of 2-1-1 by staying on the board of United Way North Carolina and hope you will join me in being an advocate for this resource in our community as well. Share the number with a friend in passing, refer them to 211counts to find out the most pressing needs in their community, and search the NC 2-1-1 database to discover vital resources being shared in your neighborhood, in your city.
A Call to Action: