It's an easy enough number - 211 - but it connects the caller to a wide variety of human service providers, such as physical and mental health resources and employment support.
The idea took several years of planning, but the phone number now is available to Pennsylvania residents as of Tuesday, said Scott Lowery, United Way executive director.
"We started about five years ago," said Cathy Stopper, a certified information referral specialist. "A group of us from different areas tried to get this up and running. We got it. It took us a long time."
During normal business hours, if someone in Lycoming or Clinton counties dials the number designed by the Federal Communications Commission, a person from STEP Inc.'s Linkage Lycoming program receives the call.
"We find the services to meet their needs," said Stopper, who is the Linkage Lycoming program manager. "When they call, they think they only need one service. They call for food. That's the immediate need right now. They might have received an eviction notice. They need help with rent, child care, prescriptions. We're able to provide them with phone numbers. ... We get them talking and there are many more needs than their initial needs."
Yet to have someone wait by the phone for 24 hours a day would not be cost effective, so there is one main call center for the region in State College to cover all 16 counties, said Tammy Gentzel, Centre County United Way executive director.
After business hours, calls are sent to Community Help Center, 141 W. Beaver Ave., State College. The center has 30 years of experience with running a hotline, which Gentzel said was similar to what it now is doing.
Originally, the only call centers for the state were to be in Pittsburgh and the Wilkes-Barre area.
"We stepped up and said 'Listen,' " Gentzel said. " 'We can better serve people who live in the central part of the states and rural parts if we can break it down.' "
The network is set up that if there are a spike of calls during business hours and the people at Linkage Lycoming cannot keep up, the call automatically bounces to the State College office.
Those in the State College office have the same database as those in Lycoming County, so they can provide the same advice.
"It's a very sophisticated and cool, modern technology system," Gentzel said.
The only difference callers would be able to recognize would be if they asked for specific directions in rural areas that someone in State College might not know.
"We won't know all the little streets," Gentzel said. "Although if someone calls during the business day, (the people at Linkage Lycoming) can provide that information. ... We believe very strongly that it's important to have the organization closest to people ... providing information about what help is available."
Like the Community Help Center, Linkage Lycoming has a history with helping people find the service they sought. They have been directing callers since 2001.
Because the workers taking the calls need to be trained on how to handle callers and remain calm in stressful situations, volunteers cannot be used to answer the phones, even if it would save money, Lowery said.
One of the reasons it took so long to bring the service to the area was financial.
"It's free for them to call, but it's not free for us through the telephone system," Gentzel said. "We have to pay for 24-hour coverage."
That works out for about $350,000, spread across 16 counties.
Originally, adding a penny or two to people's phone bills was going to pay for the service, but Lowery said he would not support tacking on that fee. Eventually, the idea was dropped.
Some of the states that already had 211 received funding from the government to pay for it. Back in March when Lowery looked for money to support the program, county commissioners could not promise anything because they did not know how many cuts would come from the state budget.
Instead, Lycoming County United Way donated $10,000 and the First Community Foundation Partnership donated $20,000. A grant in State College from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation matched the money raised, bringing the contribution to $60,000 to pay for it, he said.
Moving forward, Gentzel said the organization is in communication with local and state government, utility companies and private foundations to maintain the service after the money raised expires in about a year.
She said that after the service is in the area for a year, she believes people will want to fund it to keep it going.
The other counties that are covered by the central region, in addition to Lycoming, Clinton and Centre, include Bedford, Blair, Cambria, Columbia, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Mifflin, Montour, Northumberland, Snyder, Somerset and Union.
Businesses that have internal extensions and do not dial an access digit for an outside line may find that the 211 network does not work on their phone system unless the phone system is reprogrammed. Reprogramming involves getting in touch with the company that made or supports the business's phone system and asking it for instructions to program the phone enabling 211 calls to be completed.