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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

‘I won’t ever forget her’

United Way 2-1-1 agents help people affected by COVID-19 pandemic

By Bradley Roberts, Content Manager at United Way of Greater Atlanta

Desirey Aguilar says she won’t—couldn’t possibly—ever forget Maria.  

Aguilar works for United Way of Greater Atlanta’s 2-1-1 team as a Community Connection Specialist. 2-1-1 is a free, confidential referral and information helpline connecting people of all ages from all communities to the essential health and human services they need, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

She’s used to taking a high volume of calls daily, and typically those calls are for the things like rent and financial assistance and connection to food banks and pantries. The past two months have been different. though. 

For one, the amount of calls has increased dramatically. 

“We’re busy in certain times of the year,” Aguilar says. “Usually when school is starting back, or around the holidays, is our busiest season. But this was way busier than the holidays, and it wasn’t just about the amount of calls, but the type of calls, too. You could just hear a lot more worry and a lot more stress on the other end. These were just normal working families like us that were hit out of nowhere, and they didn’t know what else to do.”

The reason for this increase in calls is because of the pandemic outbreak of the novel coronavirus. 

About two weeks into March, major cities across the country began shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and schools in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of June 29, the infectious disease, COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and in severe cases, difficulty breathing, has infected more than 2.5 million people and killed more than 125,000. 

Businesses shut down in Atlanta and its surrounding communities, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on March 24 issued a “stay-at-home” order. On Wednesday, April 8, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp extended a statewide shelter-in-place order to roll on through the month of April, but he announced plans two weeks later to begin rolling back those orders to begin re-opening certain businesses previously deemed “nonessential.” 

Social distancing guidelines are still being encouraged at the federal, state and local levels. 

Millions of people had been furloughed or let go from jobs and forced to file for unemployment benefits. The city of Atlanta immediately put a moratorium on evictions for the next two months, and yet, Maria was still on the brink of losing her home, Aguilar says. 

The 23-year-old woman had reached her breaking point, and she needed to talk to somebody—anybody—who could help her. So, she called 2-1-1, and Aguilar answered and began talking through Maria’s concerns and her options to address those.

“Before the pandemic, a few of her family members had passed away back-to-back,” Aguilar says. “She was on her own out here, but she was thriving. 

“I remembered what it was like when I came out here, and it just reminded me of how strong she was.”

Aguilar took the job working with 2-1-1 about two years ago. She says she’s passionate about her job, and she tries to meet each caller with that same passion. Some of those calls are difficult to take and hard to forget, she says.

But she stays “in constant connection” to her managers and coworkers. She says this, along with “lots of yoga,” helps her deal with a long day.  

She’s thankful for those opportunities to help people like Maria, though. She couldn’t imagine being in her same situation. And that’s what motivates her to do what she can to help others.

“If I had come out here during a pandemic, and then suddenly not had a source of income anymore because of something beyond [my] control, I don’t know what I would do,” Aguilar says. 

Since March 13, 2-1-1 has had more than 98,000 calls related to COVID-19. The biggest requests are still for rent payment assistance, food pantries and help paying for gas and utilities. But there’s been a 33 percent increase in contacts over the past two months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 2-1-1 Contact Center is accessible by phone, email, text, chat and online, but United Way’s digital platforms will give you the fastest service. For fast self-service, text 211od to 898-211 or download United Way’s 2-1-1 app to access our searchable database of resources, which can also be accessed online here.

Aguilar was ultimately able to connect Maria to legal aid, and she said the woman called her back to tell her thank you. 

“She called me back, and that’s very rare, but she just told me how they listened to her, made her feel like a human and didn’t treat [her] like trash,” Aguilar says. “I won’t ever forget her.

“It makes me feel good when we see those emails from our clients.”

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