CONTACT Helpline: The Over-the-Phone Organization That Does It All

Story by Lizz Dawson for YRK Magazine

Ever wonder what people did before a quick Google search on their smartphones was a thing? How did they get answers to questions such as “Where do I go to renew my birth certificate?” or “Where’s a daycare center in my area?” Probably the CONTACT Helpline.

Since 1970, highly trained volunteers have been answering the CONTACT Helpline 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the community’s questions on everything from local book clubs to referrals for domestic violence.

What is CONTACT Helpline?

CONTACT Helpline is a nonprofit organization which runs multiple phone lines and referral services. Considered the “Gateway to Human Services” with the most comprehensive list of human services available, the organization helps over 4,000 callers per month from Adams, Cumberland, Perry, Mifflin, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lancaster and York counties.

PA211 is South-Central Pennsylvania’s regional information and referral service, with online, texting, and 24/7 human-operated phone service available. If you dial 211 from any phone, you’ll be directed to a staff member or volunteer at CONTACT Helpline who can provide you with the information or referrals to whatever agency, organization or program that will help —and its team hears it all. One of the latest questions: “What do I do with this swarm of bees?”

Dawn Squire, resource specialist at the York CONTACT Helpline office, says, “Because we have the capacity to offer help on multiple platforms, 24/7, we really do strive to be a central hub. We are responsible for helping the community find whatever services they may need or want, from where there’s a local book club, ‘mom and me’ activities, senior living options and services to referrals for domestic violence and human trafficking services.” All homeless services are funneled through the PA211 phone specialists as well.

CONTACT Helpline also has an Emotional Listening Support line (800-932-4616), which is a nonjudgmental listening service that puts a caller in touch with a volunteer who listens in confidence to the caller’s concerns. York’s paid operator, Kristen, says the Emotional Listening Support line “helps a caller connect with their feelings. There’s no problem too small to talk about, and we offer a safe place for our callers to freely express themselves.”

Kristen and the volunteers are not counselors and do not give advice; however, they’ve been highly trained in active listening. With the opportunity to call in up to two times a day for 10 minutes, a person is available on the other line to provide the emotional support needed for the caller or a referral to a counselor in the area. “Mostly, people are just lonely,” Kristen says.

Being on the Other Side

Kristen has worked with CONTACT Helpline for over 19 years and can’t imagine her life without the job. She told us that helping people is what keeps her there and inspired: “It’s fun. If I stayed at home all day, I’d miss it. When you help somebody, or make them feel better, there are so many rewards.”

Kristen says that she receives calls from all over the country and sometimes the world, not just from York County. She’s spoken to callers from Canada, Los Angeles, and even Japan. If there’s a language barrier, CONTACT Helpline has a language line she can refer them to as well.

“We get a lot of frequent callers, so you get to know them as much as you can.” Kristen says she enjoys this part of her job and has had the opportunity to speak to so many different people over the years. “If we can’t help them with what they’re specifically asking, we find some resource we can give them before we hang up the call.”

Changes At CONTACT

CONTACT’s biggest challenge isn’t being unable to supply their callers with what they need; it’s that the service is underfunded. Currently, no long-term or consistent state funding exists. Each region is self-sustaining, with York’s region receiving help from the United Way and York County Human Services.

Regardless, CONTACT Helpline is now working to update its online presence and make it much more user friendly. York is the pilot for this update, and the staff is doing research and running multiple focus groups to make the program as effective as possible for the community.

For more information on CONTACT Helpline’s services, visit the organization’s website or call its main line: 211. You can also reach the CONTACT Helpline by texting your zip code to 898211.

05 Jun