Starting at 211 as an Information and Resource Referral Specialist in March 2020, Ameka Wilson had no idea what was in store for the upcoming year. As with any new job, she was excited and a little anxious. With a wealth of community and customer experience– and knowing what 211 offered our community from first-hand experience – she was more than ready for the flood of COVID-19 related contacts that were to come.

211 is a free information and resource referral service, provided in part by United Way of Central Iowa, connecting people to essential, local resources to meet their current and most urgent needs. Through the pandemic, that meant supporting our state as the COVID-19 hotline and as Vaccine Navigators. In 2020 alone, 211 Iowa had 138,849 contacts. Of those, 72,734 were related to COVID-19.

In addition to disaster recovery and responding to crisis, 211 referral specialists support callers through complex challenges by listening and understanding the cause of the concern, and connecting them with resources that meet their need whether it be housing assistance, access to food, legal services, addiction treatment, scheduling free tax preparation appointments, or even just to listen.

A few years ago, Ameka was one of those callers. She was part of our ALICE® community, or those who are Asset-Limited, Income-Constrained, and Employed. This term describes households above the federal poverty level, but don’t make enough money to meet their basic needs. They are working and paying taxes, but not earning enough to be financially self-sufficient. She was first introduced to the 211 helpline through other mothers in her community who had also relied on the service.

“I remember that when I called in for support, they gave me more than contact information for the resource I needed,” said Ameka. “They made it so I didn’t have to jump through hoops just to talk to someone about getting help. They talked me through the process on how to best connect with the resource. And I didn’t feel judged.”

The ease of use, resources and services available, and lack of judgement during a call are what drew her to becoming a 211 team member. “Being a 211 representative gives me the chance to make a difference, even if it’s just for that one call or in that one moment for that person,” she said. “I love this job. It is amazing to think that we take thousands of calls, because I never feel overburdened or overwhelmed. I think it’s because every contact is a real person in need of real help, and it feels good to be on the other end, paying it forward with the help I can give.”

Self-sufficiency is something that United Way of Central Iowa focuses on for every individual and family under the UNITED to THRIVE framework. As of August 2020, as an employee of United Way, Ameka no longer qualifies for Section 8 housing. “It's bittersweet, but I'm happy because that shows I'm moving forward. And it’s such a good feeling, it really is.”

She looks at this as a major milestone in her life. She now has the ability to build wealth for her and her daughter: “Being able to save for the future is something that I have been working towards for a while. I am truly so grateful for the opportunity to work with 211 and those that I have met through 211 and their strength and support every day for our community.“

Topics: 211

Sara Engelhart

Written by Sara Engelhart

Sara Engelhart is United Way of Central Iowa's former Strategic Communications Operations Manager.