Humanity House takes over helpline



January 16, 2017 - 12:00 AM

In the spring of 2015, a group of local volunteers created a helpline intended to connect needy residents with the vast — but often confusing — network of resources available in Allen County. By dialing 620-228-5110, the caller would reach one of five or six volunteers who would then connect the caller with the service agency or charity group or individual that could best address his or her hardship.
Already in its short life, the Allen County Connectors program, originally funded by the REACH Healthcare Foundation, has fielded more than 500 calls from residents who, usually after exhausting all of their other options and with nowhere else to turn, seek assistance with life’s basic needs — utilities, housing, food, transportation, medicine.
This month, Iola’s burgeoning Humanity House — whose co-founders, Georgia Masterson and Tracy Keagle, were among the handful of original “connectors” — has assumed oversight of the helpline.
The founding ethos of Allen County Connectors was to make the process of finding help easier for the person in distress, which makes locating it under Humanity House’s roof a natural next step.
“Humanity House,” said Masterson, “has now become what we hope is a one-stop shop for people looking for resources.”
(That shop, by the way, now has a permanent address — 111 S. Washington, the former site of John McRae’s insurance business — where interested citizens can deliver donations or volunteer their services.)
However, continued Masterson, “while we may now be the place where the calls are coming, the sources of help” — the churches, the non-profits, the medical experts, the small businesses, the pocket philanthropists — “will all stay the same.”
“While I can admit that we’re underserved in some areas,” said 911 director, Angela Murphy — who, as the lead connector, has fielded the plurality of the group’s calls — “I definitely think that we don’t give ourselves enough credit for the resources that we do have, right here in Allen County.”
“It’s true,” agreed Susan Booth,  an insurance agent and another of the founding volunteers, “we have a very, very generous community.”
The women — Keagle, Masterson, Booth, Murphy — recently met for lunch to discuss the helpline handover and to swap success stories drawn from the program’s first 22 months.
Keagle remembered a caller, a man, who was living in his truck during the bitter beginnings of winter. The connectors, after extensive legwork, were able to find the man an RV and deliver him utilities just before Christmas.
Another man was without running water. After a period of carrying jug after jug of the stuff to the man, the connectors were able — with the help of a local plumbing company — to install a hydrant in the man’s yard.
Another man, who had previously been unable to work because of poor vision, lacked the resources to pay for eyeglasses. Murphy described the process of securing him a free eye exam and gaining assurances from another local organization that they’d pay for the man’s new glasses.
Most of the calls, however, according to the data accumulated by the connectors, were from women, mothers usually. And most (44 percent) of those callers were seeking assistance with utilities costs, which typically balloon during the winter months. Housing or rent assistance constituted almost 20 percent of the requests. And requests for food accounted for 14 percent of the calls.
“And these are not people who call and say ‘I’ve got a $400 utility bill. I need it paid,’” explained Keagle. “They’ll say ‘I have a $400 utility bill. I’ve managed to scrape together $275, but I can’t make the rest.’ That’s what we get. … And anytime we hand anybody any money, we ask them to pay it back, whether in [money] or volunteer work.”
Last week, the man who received the hydrant was out on the courthouse lawn helping Keagle remove the town’s Christmas decorations.
“We’ve received some of our best volunteers this way,” said Masterson.

THE ALLEN County Connectors program was the brainchild of the late Thrive Allen County grant writer John Robertson, and included, besides Murphy, Keagle, Masterson and Booth, Cyndy Greenhagen (from the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas) and Michelle Meiwes (from Hope Unlimited).
“All of this started,” said Murphy, “with a core group of dedicated volunteers who would stop at nothing. If someone needed something, we would go as far as we could to find a resolution. That was always our goal. And, I know, it’s the goal of Humanity House, too.”

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