All year long, the calls to Western New York 2-1-1 involve pretty serious business.
Mental health. Domestic violence. Substance abuse. Crisis intervention. Financial or legal issues.
At Olmsted Center for Sight in Buffalo, a handful of blind and visually impaired information and referral specialists man the phones 24-7, offering referrals to the many health and human service agencies that provide programs throughout the region’s eight counties. There’s a second call center in Batavia.
A lot of callers are “people in kind of desperate situations,” noted Sterling Smalley of Buffalo, who works as a specialist at the Buffalo site. “The point of 2-1-1 is basically to not have to call 50 numbers to get the ... service you’re looking for.”
But for a couple of months each year, Smalley and his co-workers also have a more upbeat mission. They direct people to where they can obtain toys to place beneath the Christmas tree or a holiday meal.
Olmsted Center for Sight administers the Western New York Holiday Partnership, whose partners include The News Neediest Fund. Now in its 32nd year, The News Neediest Fund last year raised $195,580, which provided holiday meals for 12,000 families and holiday gifts for about 11,000 children.
Those calls for holiday help are accepted between October and early December, when the registration period ends.
Specialists ask for a caller’s ZIP code, then direct them to the appropriate agency in their area. Callers also are told about requirements for the programs and what kind of documentation to bring.
“The families can only go to one center,” said Jeffrey Hirschfelt, vice president of academic services and business development at Olmsted.
Olmsted Center for Sight has been handling those holiday partnership calls for more than 20 years; there are between 8,000 and 10,000 annually.
The staff has access to an extensive, continuously updated database to relay helpful information to callers.
“They will do a mini assessment and determine what the needs are,” explained Hope Santonocito, director of contact center services. Many callers start out with one issue, but their conversations with the specialists lead to others, she added.
Another specialist, Ray Zylinski of Hamburg, is a newcomer to the call center. During his brief tenure, he’s already noticed the increased volume of calls before Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Zylinski and Smalley use Job Access With Speech [JAWS], a software program that converts what’s on the computer screen to speech. Once they type in a ZIP code, the computers will “tell” them what’s on the screen.
“As I’m hearing the information in my left ear, I’m relaying it to the caller,” Zylinski said.
Zylinski prides himself on being a good listener. He pays attention to inflections in callers’ voices – using that as a clue to determine their moods – and said he adjusts his tone accordingly.
“I have been blind pretty much since I was six years old. I’ve gone through life listening to things,” Zylinski said. “That’s all this job is … you’re listening to people.”