Since 2006, 2-1-1 Maine has provided Mainers with vital information about health and human services. Now those running it are looking to expand the program, which celebrated its fifth anniversary on Thursday at Youth Alternatives Ingraham in South Portland.

The program acts as a “one-stop shop” directory of social services to the public and operates a 24/7 calling center where people can call 2-1-1 and speak directly to trained specialists to get statewide information on anything from local food pantries to medical or unemployment services.

The center received 78,000 calls over the past year. Call specialists direct callers to more than 8,000 health and human services all over the state.

“There are opportunities to work with more agencies and consolidate more services under one roof,” said Karen Turgeon, program director for 2-1-1 Maine. “Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow.”

The program is a joint venture of the 10 United Ways of Maine and Youth Alternatives Ingraham. It runs on an annual budget of about $1.3 million, said Mary Beltrante of the United Way of Greater Portland, which covers core call center operations and salaries. About 46 percent of funding comes from the state and 38 percent from the United Way. The remainder comes from a variety of sources.

The program has 17 employees who answer telephones and keep resource information up-to-date. “Before 2-1-1, if you needed assistance, you wouldn’t know where to go,” said Beltrante. She described the ordeal of sifting through phone books filled with outdated toll-free numbers.

“Maybe you would find hundreds of hotlines and not know which to choose, or you wouldn’t find any at all,” she said. “Now we have one number that you can call.”

Over the past five years, the program has also been instrumental in helping with disaster relief. It worked with the Maine Emergency Management Agency during several emergency situations, including the 2007 Patriots Day flood, the 2008 ice storm and the 2009 Aroostook County floods.

Suzanne McCormick, president and CEO of United Way Greater Portland, said the program helped 182 families last winter with emergency fuel assistance. “It’s hard to imagine not having 2-1-1 as a resource,” she said.

The service recently became the official state gambling-problem hotline, helping Maine consolidate calling center resources. In 2010, it was the central helpline for information about the H1N1 virus.

The program also helps cut down the number of non-emergency 9-1-1 calls.

“This is not the place to call if there’s a fire or somebody’s breaking in,” said Bill Vickerson, president of the 2-1-1 board of directors. “This is the place you call afterwards, when you’re asking, ‘what do I do next?'”

Maine was the 33rd state in the country to establish a 2-1-1 toll-free line, but only the 15th state to make it a statewide program. “We wanted this to be bigger than just Portland and Bangor, encompassing rural areas, too,” said Vickerson.

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