Chris Collins
The Baker City Herald

By Chris Collins

A service that hasn't yet reached its full potential has been available in Baker County since February.

That's the 2-1-1 information system. And while it was first started in Oregon in 2004, the system has taken some time to expand to the far reaches of the state, according to Matt Kinshella, communications director for the independent nonprofit organization.

Baker County residents certainly could benefit from the services offered through the 2-1-1 system, says Mary Jo Carpenter, Baker County manager for Community Connection, which sponsors the Senior Center as well as assisting other residents of the area. And the agency itself could benefit, she said.

"This is a new tool for seniors and for us," she said.

Because Community Connection strives to serve a wider population than only those who come to the Senior Center, the 2-1-1 system will be a big help, Carpenter said.

"We receive such a multitude of questions," she said. "This provides the broadest array of resources at a place where people can access them. That's been our goal for a long time."

Kinshella says the process of developing partnerships in each region and funding the work is what has delayed the expansion. A recent Ford Family Foundation grant of nearly $300,000 has allowed the project to move into the eastern and southern parts of Oregon and into southwestern Washington this year, he said.

Although a website specifically for those areas is still being developed, the service is available by dialing 2-1-1 toll-free to seek information about health and social service programs and other nonprofit agencies, Kinshella said.

Specialists are available to offer assistance on a variety of topics, ranging from where to find help for rent and energy assistance to sources of low-cost or free health care or where to turn for food-related concerns, including how to apply for a national pet food-stamps program.

The information service also answers questions on topics such as tsunami preparedness and home foreclosures and serves as a backup to the 9-1-1 system during public health emergencies.

Information provided by 7,000 different programs is updated regularly.

"78 percent of our callers live below the federal poverty line," Kinshella said, and they need help finding the right resources.

"We try to promote healthy communities," he added, and that means helping people connect with social services.

Kinshella said the organization is working to develop relationships with local agencies as it implements websites for each region.

"A grassroots effort is important for our work," he said. "We'd rather do it right than to rush through it."

Information on the website urges those seeking information to call 2-1-1 between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. for assistance. Representatives of health or social service agencies who would like to be added to the database or who have questions about the program also are urged to call.

"We'd love for more residents to know about the service," Kinshella said.