Long, hot summer days like these remind me of growing up in a small town in the 70’s. We never wore shoes, left our wet swimming suits on until they dried, and spent countless hours with neighborhood friends.

The days stretched into the twilight hours of dusk. Lightning bugs emerged from seemingly nowhere, teasing us with their light show. We played until the “signal” was sounded, a loud whistle from my playmate’s mom, Anita. I swear that whistle could be heard blocks away. And, when we heard it, we knew to stop everything and run home. There was no negotiating closing time.

In retrospect, that signal was the 1970’s version of today’s text message. She clicked “send” by standing on the front porch, fingers to her mouth, and heartily exhaling. We need not answer in any way other than to hustle our dirty, bare feet back home.

For those of us who remember a life before cell phones, it is almost incomprehensible to grasp the effectiveness of this communication vehicle. But for youth today, including my children, text messaging has become their preferred method of reaching out.

Let’s compare scenarios. Believe it or not, I live on the exact block where I grew up, two doors down from my childhood home. The house numbers are even the same, just transposed in their order.

My teenage son is now retracing the steps of my childhood to some extent. He plays basketball with his buddies at the elementary school until this overly-protective mom gets worried. But I when I want to reach him, I don’t whistle or call to tell him it is time to come home. Instead, I send a text.

Adapting to this trend, United Way has launched a new texting option for its 2-1-1 information line for people looking for help in Kansas.

2-1-1 is a national dialing code for free, confidential 24-hour access to thousands of health and human services, such as housing, shelter, food, legal aid, clothing, counseling, utility assistance, health care, transportation and more. During disasters, 2-1-1 also provides important public information that frees up 9-1-1 to handle life-or-death emergencies.

I find it compelling to think that a man living in Indiana, worried about his parents living in North Newton, could pick up the phone and call 2-1-1 to learn about resources in Harvey County. This quick access to information could help expedite care, and eliminate hours of research for the son.

United Way 2-1-1 of Kansas handles 50,000 calls annually and 28,000 online searches. Now it looks to add thousands of texting inquiries to those numbers.

In the first quarter of 2018, 2-1-1 received 132 calls from Harvey County residents. Of those, 114 received successful referrals to local resources ranging from bereavement counseling to employment transition counseling to substance abuse drop in services. Only eight of the calls were needs categorized as “unmet” by the 2-1-1 specialists, meaning there were no available resources in the system.

I frequently receive calls for help at my office, typically for basic needs such as utilities, rent and food. Most people calling my office have never reached out for help before, finding themselves suddenly in a situation where they cannot pay the bills or feed their kids.

I will never forget the man on the other end of the line years ago, recently laid off from his long-time employment, and unable to feed his teenage son. He was lost in this new world without steady pay. He set his pride aside and made a phone call to United Way.

While United Way does not give out direct assistance, my role is to give contact information for local non-profits. At the end of that list, I always encourage the caller to also contact 2-1-1. I explain that while, yes they just called United Way, the 2-1-1 line is staffed by certified call specialists with knowledge of local, regional and statewide organizations and services.

Since 2006, United Way of the Plains has provided the 2-1-1 information across the state of Kansas, through the call center and online (211kansas.org). They provide this service at no charge to the other United Way organizations in the state, which is a blessing to smaller organizations like ours with a smaller campaign budget. That means our local donor dollars are freed up to invest locally.

To use the new 2-1-1 texting option, individuals simply text their zip code to 898211. A 2-1-1 specialist will answer the text, determining their specific needs and identifying what local nonprofit or government agency will best meet their needs. The text will include agency name, phone number, and other useful information needed (including hours of operation, sliding fee scales, etc.).

Please share this information with your children, grandchildren and friends. One text may become a turning point for a person in need.

 — Tina Payne is director of Harvey County United Way