By Anne Kendall // Photography submitted
United Way offers helping hand that keeps reaching
Angela Black had moved from Illinois to Beech Grove to get her adult son medical help. While he was being treated at Eskenazi Hospital in Indianapolis, Black did her best to settle in to her surroundings.
But it was hard. “We were new to our area, so it’s a little like living in a foreign country,” says Black, who also cares for her 11- and 13-year-old daughters and her 4-year-old grandson. Being broke all the time, often unsure of how she would make the next month’s rent or keep her kids warm didn’t make things any easier. She had noticed the digits 2-1-1 on cars, a grocery-store bulletin board and in her doctor’s office, promising help. One day, she steeled the courage to pick up the phone.
That call connected her with people at the United Way of Johnson County Helpline, and her life hasn’t been quite the same ever since.
“They told me about energy assistance and a Bundle Up program where kids can get coats,” says Black. “They told me about Fast Track,” which provides backpacks and school supplies to students in the area.
And when she couldn’t get to them, they came to her. “Even though the woman told us about those great programs, I don’t have transportation,” says Black. “She came to our home with so much school-supply stuff. Then when she was done, she literally sat on the floor with us. Who does that? It was just beautiful.”
Black is one of 1,631 people who turned to the UWJC Helpline last year for help with challenges from rent to holiday gifts to domestic-abuse counseling and assistance. Some dialed it directly, at 317-738-4636. Some, like Black, called 211, a United Way hotline that referred them to the Johnson County-specific group. A few walked in the door of the office on Ironwood Drive in Franklin.
The Helpline is a program run by UWJC, a nonprofit managed by a board of volunteers. In one form or another since 1985, it has been a free and confidential way for Johnson County residents to reach out for a wide range of assistance, whether that’s money or housing (the most common two needs) or help escaping a bad home situation, repairing a dilapidated house or finding a way to get to a job.
One important thing to note: The UWJC Helpline does not hand out assistance. It shows people where they can find it and when possible, aids them in landing it. Helpline volunteers know there’s a lot of help out there, but getting it can be overwhelming. In one case, they pulled together a village to help a man whose trailer furnace had died. His monthly Social Security — $750, his only source of income — quickly dwindled after paying for utilities, food and lot rental. A $2,000 expense like replacing a furnace is more than most individual charities or service agencies can handle on their own, so Helpline staffers turned to eight different resources to come up with $1,000, and the furnace company agreed to waive the other $1,000.
“When somebody calls the Helpline, we ask a lot of questions,” says Jenny Kinnaman, the group’s impact director, who’s been working there for five years. “Where they live in the county, for one thing. Then we look at household size, unemployment or income status for the home, and what the caller is able to do themselves. What resources have they already reached out to?”
Helpline staffers are able to steer people in the right direction because they know what’s out there and which groups have income caps or are otherwise especially likely to be able (or not) to help.
“Before we start giving folks a laundry list of places to call, we want to see what’s available to them,” says Kinnaman. “Every call is very specific to the caller. It’s hard for anyone to ask for help, so we want to be cognizant of their time and their efforts.”
So instead of just handing over a brochure with endless phone numbers, the person who answers the Helpline tries to identify the likeliest avenues for help right off the bat. “If somebody calls in asking for rent, maybe those funds are tapped out, but we can find a service that would pay their utility bill, so they can shift that money to rent,” says Kinnaman. “We try to look at the whole picture of a caller.”
The people taking the six or so calls that come in each day to the Helpline, which is staffed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, are not volunteers; they’re staffers trained in social work.
“The person who is answering the phone needs to understand the network we have and the position that caller is in,” says Nancy Lohr Plake, executive director of the Helpline. “They need to be kind, they need to be considerate, but they also need to hold the client accountable. We always say if we’re working hard, we want the caller to be working hard. It takes kindness and courage to answer that phone.”
Knowing the right questions to ask and how to phrase them takes a special touch. “Some of our folks have never had to ask for assistance before,” says Kinnaman. “They don’t even know what to ask for. We’re trying to put them at ease. When we ask questions, we’re looking to provide the best service for them. We’re not trying to be nosy.” Over time, she says, they often manage to build rapport, with clients sharing things they weren’t comfortable saying right off the bat.
Though it’s important to the Helpline mission that callers take some initiative to help themselves, misuse of the services hasn’t really been an issue. “Getting health and human services is not as easy as it should be,” says Kinnaman. “So when people say things like, ‘Well, people just need to do this or that to get assistance,’ it’s not as easy as that. I don’t think the majority of our clients abuse the system, because it’s not an easy system to abuse. People who are reaching out to us the majority of the time really need the help.”
As Black discovered, the help doesn’t end once you hang up. Says Kinnaman, “We often ask folks to call back, to let us know how things are going, to see if there are any additional resources we can provide them with.”
“When we were running short on food, they told us about pantries and stuff and brought the girls deodorants and lotions and soaps,” says Black. “They have really blessed our family. Not only do they know so much, they go above and beyond.”
The son for whom she moved to the area for medical treatment has since passed away. But Black feels more at home than before, thanks in part to the UWJC Helpline. “They call and check on us to make sure we’re OK,” she says. “It’s almost like a family. We don’t feel so foreign now.”