Michigan 211 is an information and referral hotline that connects Michiganders to different resources in their counties. Shannon Benjamin is a contact manager for 211. Her role involves managing contact quality, monitoring calls, coaching call agents, and training all staff on new platforms. She has certifications in working with aging adults, people with disabilities, and veterans, and she is also Mental Health First Aid certified. But before her contact manager role, Benjamin was a caller herself.
“I worked in a lot of restaurants, had a lot of server jobs. Trying to access services all the time when you have a full-time job is hard. I struggled with that. When I saw a job at 211 that I could grow into, I knew this is what I had to do,” she says.
Benjamin understands firsthand how difficult navigating social services can be. “You have to be at these appointments at these times to get help with these things. But the things you need help with also prevent you from coming, like car repairs or childcare,” she says. For example, a single mother working multiple jobs who needs childcare can’t attend appointments with social service workers until she has that childcare. “There’s no room for prevention. It feels like you have to be in a full-blown crisis to qualify for help. But 211 can help people prevent getting to that point.”
But Benjamin has felt the power of understanding social service workers. She understands how impactful a good one can be and how unhelpful others are. “The caseworker who never answered my phone calls was not life-changing for me. But the person who sat on the other side of the desk and passed me the tissues, the person who helped me make a plan not to miss rent again – that person changed my life. I wanted to do that for other people.”
Service seeker to provider
In 2021, 211 received 6,173 calls, texts, emails, and chats from Bay County Michiganders seeking assistance. Of those clients, 26% needed utilities, 18% housing, and 8% food. Benjamin trains 211 workers to connect Michiganders to these resources and more. She then follows up with callers to ensure they received the help they needed.
Benjamin loves her work, but she often misses direct care. While she can oversee client journeys to a limited extent through quality management, her role is very indirect. That’s why she is currently enrolled in CHW training. “CHWs get to be there throughout the process and see that success happen. I want to be able to do things more direct. That’s what made me want to do this training.”
While she is not yet a CHW, Benjamin still plays a vital role in overseeing the health of her Bay County clients. She does this from a higher-level reporting aspect and encourages her trainees and workers to record each caller’s needs thoroughly. “One important way we can help is by recording every unmet need and then taking it back to people who fund these programs. Even something as simple as age, gender, or where you live helps us show where we need the resources.”
Beyond connecting clients to resources and training her workers to do so, too, Benjamin has provided the listening ear that many callers need. She remembers how different social services workers have helped her in the past. Benjamin understands that many people navigating the social services system and seeking resources truly just need space to express their feelings and struggles. One such client was an older man who had lost his wife.
“Somebody was grieving his wife, struggling to get some help for things he had fallen behind on. He was so passionate about the things he was going to do when he got back on his feet,” Benjamin remembers. “He was so glad that someone had just talked to him. Nobody had wanted to hear about his wife anymore. I didn’t have a lot of resources, but I spent a good chunk of time just listening. I know that that helped him and put his mind back in a place where he could do something that needed to be done.”
Meeting a need
Despite not yet being a certified CHW, Benjamin has all the skills and strengths of a great one: compassion, outreach, empathy, and knowledge of community needs. Her knowledge of community needs comes from her own lived experiences navigating resources and from her work as a contact manager. One community need she and her team identified in Bay County was food distribution. While free and reduced-price food is abundant in the county, accessing it is much harder.
“We were struggling to get people connected to local food pantries. They had a really tough process that wasn’t always fair. We got some agencies to sign on with 211 and take over some of the load,” she says. These strategic partnerships did wonders for increasing access to food. “We dropped complaints by 97%, and it’s still a process they’re using today. We went from people waiting up to 6 days to get food to getting it in 24 hours or less.”
Benjamin further used this knowledge to create the nonprofit Back to the Bay. She listened to and understood what held community members back. Then Benjamin mobilized an idea. Back to the Bay connects community members to various food centers and food resources. It also created pop-up locations in areas that need distribution most.
“We don’t have a food problem; we have a food distribution problem. I created a network of little free pantries and gathered volunteers, and the organization still has about 24 of them.”
Benjamin is a fantastic example of someone doing community health work without the official CHW certificate and title. As she completes her training in August 2022, she will surely continue making direct and indirect impacts on the lives of her community members.