After answering the phone, the frail voice of an elderly woman comes over the receiver. She says that she lives on a fixed income and she does not know how she is going to pay rent, let alone all of her other bills, this month. She feels lost and alone.
On the other end of the line, Toni L. Gainer leans forward toward her desk and starts finding a way, any way, she can help.
Toni does not immediately pass the woman off to some other organization or simply give the elderly woman another phone number to call. Toni takes her time, asks more questions about the woman’s circumstances and listens carefully to her answers. “This woman paid her dues all her life and never asked for help,” Toni said, recalling the conversation. “But she needed help and we were here.”
While she cannot give out any money directly to the woman, Toni tells the woman of a rent rebate program for seniors. After learning of the woman’s dog, Toni connects her to an animal shelter that can give her pet food. The woman was concerned about paying her utilities and Toni teaches her about the assistance program LIHEAP. Toni also finds a church that can give a one-time charitable donation to the woman.
“I will always remember that call because she was so thankful,” Toni said. “And I was so thankful she called and learned about all of these things.” Toni is director of United Way’s 211 East, a 12-person team that tackles the hardships of callers from Berks and six neighboring counties by connecting them to already existing resources. 211 is free, confidential and available 24-hours a day.
“We give people a toolkit of knowledge,” said Toni, who’s been at 211 for the past 27 years. “We are arming people, empowering people to help themselves.”
In 2019, 211 East handled 6,658 calls, website visits, text messages and emails from Berks County residents. The top needs of Berks residents was help with housing issues, utility assistance, food assistance, mental health needs and legal support. The vast majority of callers were women and people ages 26 to 54.
Many of the staff at 211 East are certified resource navigators but Toni said she looks for a very specific type of person to be on the other end of the line when someone calls looking for hand up. “I can train people to use our database but I can’t train them to have that compassion skillset,” Toni said.
Julie Kennedy has worked at 211 East for the past year and said the experience shows her how easy it is for people to suddenly go hungry, face eviction or face mental health issues. “You find you have a lot in common with the people who call, which makes their issues much more relatable,” Julie said. “Things can be going great and then they have a medical emergency and it changes everything. My favorite part of the job is advocating them when they are helpless and hopeless, letting them open up.”
And though the job can be emotionally strenuous for such a sympathetic staff, it is not thankless. A record of client feedback shows the gratitude and relief. In November, one caller said “You are a cheerful woman, you have a very loving heart.” Another that month said “You are a great listener.” Another in May said “This is the most assistance I’ve received the whole hour I’ve been searching for resources.”
The voice over the phone is a young woman in Berks whose partner recently passed away, leaving her a single mother in an emotional and physical space she no longer feels safe in.
A working man in his 70s who was laid off several months ago has nearly tapped out his savings and doesn’t know where to turn.
Toni and her team are there to answer the call.