HELENA – A partnership of local leaders and service agencies announced plans Friday to provide better support for veterans, service members and their families.
Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins and Billings Mayor Bill Cole have been taking part in the nationwide Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families. As part of that effort, Mayor’s Challenge teams in both cities, the United Way and the Montana VA Health Care System are working on improvements to the Montana 211 program.
211 is a phone number set aside nationwide as a way to connect people in need with available resources. In Montana, five nonprofit organizations operate 211 centers, which maintain databases of those resources. They also share a single website, montana211.org, that collects the information online.
The VA awarded the United Way of Yellowstone County a 12-month, $220,000 contract to upgrade the 211 program in the state to meet veterans’ needs. That includes expanding 211 phone service to Billings and southeastern Montana, where it currently isn’t available. The databases will be updated to make sure their information is complete and accurate. Call center workers will also be trained to be “military-friendly,” so they can better understand how to communicate with and understand those who have served and their families.
Juliana Hallows, Montana VA’s suicide prevention coordinator, said it’s important to make sure support is available well before someone is actually in crisis. She said simply connecting returning veterans with others who understand their experiences can make a great deal of difference.
“We’ve got to make our veterans and our service members know that Montana’s home, they’re part of a community, we care for them and we want to connect with them,” she said. “211’s going to help us do that.”
Collins has strong ties to the military. He served in the U.S. Navy Reserve for years, his wife is currently an Army reservist, and his daughter is on active duty in the Navy. He said he understands the challenges service life can bring.
“I saw firsthand what it’s like,” he said. “I’m not going to say my family is immune from that. So it’s important to me that we keep this going and make sure we get all our veterans, all our service members involved in this process.”
Leaders say the contract will also pay for developing a sustainability plan, to ensure the 211 program is stable for years to come. It will also include outreach, so more people are aware of what the program can provide.
“We’re happy that other stakeholders got involved and we’ve come to this point where we can say that, ‘Hey, we’ve got results,’” said Collins.