Who is 211info? We’re so much more than a call center. We’re a dedicated and dynamic team from all walks of life who live and work within the communities we serve across Oregon and Southwest Washington. We have come together over shared values, a passion for helping others, and the drive to improve lives and better our communities. Our agency has expanded in numbers and capabilities over the past few years, and our commitment to connecting people with the resources they need has only gained momentum.
Piseth Pich, Community Engagement Division Manager and Public Information Officer, Hillsboro Fire and Rescue, has been a member of the 211info Board of Directors (BOD) since 2016 and is serving a two-year term as Chair. Piseth sat down for an interview with Darcy Nutter, 211info’s communications coordinator, on August 10, 2023, to discuss why he got involved with 211info, the direction he sees the agency moving in the future, and how both his personal and professional life have shaped how he shows up in service to others.
Darcy Nutter: Thank you for taking the time to be here. Our goal is to help our staff, partners, and community members understand what drives 211info strategy as an agency. To kick things off, please share how you got involved with 211info and how your current and past professional experience aligns with 211info’s mission.
Piseth Pich: My involvement started through a past 211info staffer, Deborah Willoughby. I worked alongside her husband at Legacy Health, and he mentioned 211info was seeking board members from the healthcare sector. Having served on non-profit boards previously, such as the American Heart Association and Hands-On Portland, I was familiar with the responsibilities of membership in this capacity and thought it would be a good fit.
This time period was pivotal at 211info, as it was when opportunities for growth and expanding services were taking off. Being on the board was a chance to support current operations while encouraging the agency to take steps slightly beyond the comfort zone. I hoped my role would help facilitate new opportunities and help guide 211info toward a more collaborative role in lowering barriers and creating a bridge to equitable health choices for everyone.
The point where 211info engages simultaneously with the entire community and various resource and provider agencies is the juncture that resonates with my work, and it’s why I felt a strong desire to become involved. Throughout my career, I have sought to emphasize the importance of a comprehensive patient journey to achieve optimal wellness. While we frequently hear references to “the social determinants of health” and the interconnectedness of social well-being and healthcare, this vital message often becomes obscured by jargon. The key takeaway is that health care and social care are not mutually exclusive, and it’s about providing support and resources to people where they are.
It’s easy to see the significance of this message when we look among the individuals who are the first point of contact for those in need—often first responders. They have a unique opportunity to play an active role in assessing patient needs beyond the immediate urgency of the moment. This view involves empowering them to dedicate extra time to gather information about underlying factors that may also contribute to the immediate need, but that might be harder to see.
Training first responders to comprehensively evaluate a person’s varying needs might mean adopting a social worker’s perspective and shifting their mindset toward understanding the individual’s overall well-being. This might look like identifying issues such as lack of food, living in an environment with mold or faulty plumbing, or having caregiving needs while living alone—elements that are not evident to hospital staff unless someone takes the extra time to observe and relay such information.
In many respects, 211info staff are first responders. Not only is dialing 211 often the initial step for people seeking assistance, but 211info staff are adept at extracting additional information through effective questioning to evaluate the complete needs of each individual seeking help. It’s recognizing and valuing people for their unique identities and qualities, rather than reducing them to mere numbers or service requirements. This approach communicates, “I see you, I hear you—let’s help you.”
Success in this approach necessitates a work culture that focuses on clients feeling acknowledged and valued. 211info’s work revolves around this—being fundamentally person-centered. Achieving this requires a team that perceives their roles as avenues for improving the lives of others, and I genuinely believe that this essence defines the core of 211info. The highly trained and empathetic people behind the scenes collaborate to ensure the best outcomes for the communities they serve.
Darcy: So well said. Our specialized staff possess an in-depth understanding of local resources and a real passion for helping others. Is there a particular aspect within this realm that gets you most excited about the agency’s future?
Piseth: 211 agencies nationwide are engaged in important work. However, many have not yet moved beyond the conventional model of providing information and referral, into direct-service delivery and incorporation of additional care services. Some 211 agencies have recognized the evolving needs and the demand for adaptation, particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and 211info is among them.
While it’s true that a core strength of 211 services is data, it’s essential to recognize that data alone doesn’t encompass the complete value within the community. Beyond data collection, 211 agencies serve as stewards of this data, and the caliber of the individuals involved enriches the quality of the data. The meaningfulness comes from having real people—and the right people—asking the right questions. Good people amplify good data.
For 211info, it’s about the staff’s incredibly effective collaboration, all driven by the overarching question: “How can we genuinely understand and best meet our client’s needs?” Achieving this demands more than just training; it necessitates an internal support system that nurtures a culture where every staff member feels empowered to help to the best of their abilities, including feeling supported enough to seek assistance from colleagues in real-time. This underscores the understanding that no single staff member possesses all knowledge, but that together the staff are comprehensive and identify solutions quickly. The culture cultivated by 211info, focused on constant availability for assistance and effectively using technology to do so, underscores the staff’s commitment to supporting each other and the community.
I think this approach serves as a potential model for other 211 agencies across the nation, and it’s exciting that 211info is one of the agencies leading the way in this transition toward more comprehensive services.
Darcy: The availability, support, and troubleshooting on Slack is fantastic! It gives staff the confidence to take on every situation because they know colleagues are readily available to assist within minutes, which is more than reassuring. This level of teamwork fosters the confidence needed to engage with callers, even in more unique scenarios, in a way that reflects both the collective knowledge and compassion to identify what is needed.
Piseth: The lower staff turnover compared to call centers overall shows this as well.
In addition to the culture and the availability of support, the heart of what 211info is doing goes beyond reporting out numbers or tracking community needs. The team truly desires to create and maintain connections within the community and help those in need.
And the incredible thing is you don’t have to drag people along—they are already out in front and asking how they can help. This became incredibly evident during COVID-19. The 211info team rose to the occasion, facing challenges head-on, and that’s not always true for these types of organizations.
Darcy: Speaking of that period, when COVID-19 hit, 211info made some impressive changes and quickly adjusted how we worked to better serve local agencies and the community. But looking at this rapid growth and expansion of operations, are there any areas of vulnerability that give you pause?
Piseth: I think the biggest thing is 211info’s ability to support staff in dealing with the emotional toll of the calls they handle. While some calls are expected to be challenging, the daily exposure to an overwhelming level of need, coupled with the genuine care and empathy of the team, takes a toll.
The critical issue is when staff are genuinely dedicated to making a difference and armed with the right training and compassion, but continually encounter a lack of available resources. This creates such a heavy burden. When individuals who genuinely want to make a positive impact consistently find themselves unable to do so due to resource limitations, the biggest concern is that their enthusiasm and motivation to help diminishes over time.
Darcy: Absolutely, it’s a significant challenge. Many callers also assume that 211info can directly provide services, and it’s tough to repeatedly respond with, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing available right now.” We encourage callers to keep checking as resources are in constant flux, but still, the reality is that when you’re fielding numerous daily calls for housing or rental assistance, it’s disheartening to know there’s nothing to offer. Here is where asking ‘the second question’ comes in and attempting to troubleshoot alternative ways to assist the caller. But it’s disappointing when resources are limited, and you only want to provide help to someone in need.
Piseth: And there isn’t an easily identifiable solution to such a complex issue.
I can say that the board of directors is not performative, and we are genuinely committed to helping tackle this issue. And we are looking to 211info staff to help lead the way in identifying effective solutions. What is the path forward? Revamped training and onboarding? Different operations or support mechanisms? This is where staff who interface daily with clients can weigh in and help shape the future of their workplace. Obviously, we don’t want to create more burden on the team, but we do want to gain a better understanding of day-to-day workflow to offer more support.
Another crucial area to watch is that all agency growth needs to be thoughtful and intentional, not just for expansion’s sake. It’s critical to proceed cautiously and prioritize community outcomes and staff well-being. This way, the agency avoids becoming an overburdened balloon that eventually bursts.
Darcy: Apart from the emotional toll on staff and agency growth, what do you perceive as the most significant external challenge for 211info in the coming three years?
Piseth: The biggest challenge I see is the differing perceptions of 211 within rural and urban communities.
In urban areas, there’s a risk of being seen as the new 911 catch-all, which could lead to external complacency and a “Just call 211, they’ll handle it” approach. However, that isn’t our core function—we’re not a crisis or complaint line—and it’s not our specialty. I think the challenge is educating community partners about 211info’s core capabilities, in order to serve communities in a complementary fashion.
On the other side of the coin, in rural areas, the issue is that not enough people are aware that 211 exists or that they can call for assistance. Many smaller communities don’t know the 211 service is state-wide (and SW Washington). And even if people know about calling 211, there’s a misconception that we’re only effective in Portland. It’s true that resources are more scarce in rural settings due to lower populations, but they do exist, and the challenge is conveying that we have the most comprehensive and current information available.
So, the primary external challenge over the coming years revolves around striking a balance: avoiding urban overwhelm while being visible and highlighting value in rural communities.
Darcy: Absolutely agree. I appreciate your insights. Moving away from the 211info topic, since we’re introducing you to staff and partners, let’s take this opportunity to get to know you better! If you were to write an autobiography, what would be the theme?
Piseth: It’s funny you ask this, considering my sister just published her memoirs! My family’s history is intertwined with being Cambodian refugees who fled the genocide in 1975 where more than 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives. I’ve observed firsthand the immense struggles and hardships my mother endured to provide safety and happiness for her children.
Witnessing these experiences shaped my identity and values and has fueled my desire to give back and help others. I try to connect with people where they are and recognize them for who they are.
The complementary narrative to the book’s main story revolves around the genuine human determination that emerges from survivalism and optimism, and how these values, imparted by my parents, have charted the course of my life.
Darcy: This is realness. An inspiring topic and a book that I want to read! Thank you so much for your willingness to share. Okay, one more. Is there a specific snack food you can never resist, no matter how hard you try?
Piseth: There are a couple, but BBQ Pringles are my number one.
Darcy: So good. Once you pop, you really can’t stop. Thanks for playing along! Any closing thoughts we might not have covered?
Piseth: A reminder that in our day jobs, the 211info Board of Directors are the people who work hands-on, wearing scrubs and PPE at the partner agencies with which the 211info team and other partners are familiar. We’re all in this together.
This post is part of a series where we’ll introduce our board of directors and a wide variety of 211info staff. Get to Know 211info: Subscribe to our newsletter below to receive the ongoing series in your inbox.