Emily C. Roush
The Ashland Beacon
As winter storms covered the region in ice and snow, local organizations leapt into action to aid the thousands left without power and heat. United Way of Northeast Kentucky (UWNEK) was one of the entities central to providing assistance. According to CEO Jerri Compton, the mission of UWNEK is to fight for “the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community” in the five-county area of Boyd, Carter, Elliot, Greenup, and Lawrence counties. UWNEK’s 85-year presence in the area has allowed them to build long-term partnerships with other organizations, something that has helped them to respond to crises like this most recent one. “As one of the ‘big three’ long time service organizations – United Way, Red Cross and Salvation Army – we are positioned to help with critical needs as well as long-term growth and stability for individuals and families to become self-sustaining,” she explained.
One way that UWNEK has been able to help people is through the 211 program.
In 2000, the Federal Communications Commission designated the 211 phone number as a way to help people identify community resources. According to the FCC’s website, the number “provides individuals and families in need with a shortcut through what can be a bewildering maze of health and human service agency phone numbers. By simply dialing 211, those in need of assistance can be referred, and sometimes connected, to appropriate agencies and community organizations.” 211 calls are routed by local telephone companies to local or regional call centers.
UWNEK launched a 211 service in its territory in 2017. Compton explained, “With one, easy to remember number, individuals can call 24/7/365 and speak to a live specialist who will help them in finding resources available in their community. During disasters, 211 can be an aid to emergency response and the community by helping divert non-emergency calls from already over-burdened emergency personnel for help with services like food, water and shelter locations, and other non-emergency needs.”
Compton noted that UWNEK staff and volunteers searched for and added information about resources to its 211 databases as severe weather conditions progressed. “I am so proud of the work my team did during the storm and since. My staff who still had power were literally scouring Facebook, calling churches, pantries, cities, and counties to identify and verify as many resources available as possible,” she recalled. She continued, “our goal was to quickly begin entering resources identified from throughout the community – a food service here and a shelter there – into our emergency database so that people in our region could call and find out what was available and where. Our goal is to find the resources, take the calls, and direct to those offering the service or assistance.”
Community partnerships were critical for Compton and her team at UWNEK to connect those in need with help. “Our community partners like Red Cross and Salvation Army worked with us like rock stars, delivering supplies to areas as we were contacted and needs were identified.” She provided one specific example. “On [Friday, February 12] evening, I received a message at 10:35 that night from a UWNEK campaign volunteer with First National Bank of Grayson from Carter County. His church, First Baptist, was setting up a shelter for people needing a place to get warm or stay. They had a few couches and places but were quickly getting overrun as the effects of the first storm grew. He contacted me asking if we or someone we knew could help with some of their supplies. I immediately reached out to our partners – Red Cross and Salvation Army. By the next morning Salvation Army was delivering supplies and food, Red Cross was delivering blankets and cots, and UWNEK was providing funds for emergency purchases. Discussing the situation with the county emergency management and Red Cross regional team to help bring in more supplies. We were advocating with the state for additional help.”
Compton also noted that UWNEK was able to step in and provide assistance in situations where the escalating winter storm created problems that were too great for local nonprofits, churches, and other entities to handle alone. Compton emphasized, “when we are working best, we are all working together, playing our part, and communicating to each other while getting the job done. And I can’t stress the role that our Boyd County Emergency Management, director Tim England, Judge Executive Eric Chaney, Mayor Matt Perkins and others played during all of this. They are incredible and care so much for the citizens they serve.”
As the region continues to recover from the winter storms, Compton and her team are finding the lessons in the experience.
“Organizing and mobilizing relief efforts during the storm didn’t come easy for anyone. We certainly learned the need for post-disaster conversations with a regional focus on who does what, can and should do it and where there are gaps or no services available. There were so many people working so hard, and it’s always important that we work smarter, not harder and that we are not duplicating services and thus wasting resources. A lot got done by a lot of great people and organizations but there were certainly opportunities that were identified as well for us to work better as a regional team. Those conversations have already started and will be continuing and I’m happy to be a part of them.”