Dial 2-1-1 

People looking to find social-service agencies have only to remember three digits. The Heart of Florida United Way has begun a phone referral system in which callers can locate 400 local charities.

Backed with funding from Darden Restaurants and other sponsors, the 2-1-1 service is expected to cut through bureaucratic tangles, allowing people on the cusp of an emergency to find help.

Among the services offered for referral are emergency shelter, job training, support groups, day care and counseling. "For many people experiencing a personal or family crisis, the highly trained professionals at the 2-1-1 call center will not only provide free access to information and referrals, but will be a voice of understanding and compassion," says Catherine Hoechst, who chaired an advisory committee that brought the 2-1-1 initiative forward.

Heart of Florida United Way will team with the Community Services Network, an information center that already handles 60,000 calls a year, and Lifeline of Central Florida to employ 15 workers who will operate the 2-1-1 call center 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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