You never know where you might find a hero – perhaps a person who provides the right help in hard times.
For thousands of people who called for help last year to 211 in Western New York, the heroes on other end of the line were individuals who had trained at the National Statler Center. The National Statler Center is the educational and employment arm of VIA, formerly Olmsted Center for Sight, a Johnson Scholarship Foundation grantee partner.
The stories they heard covered every difficulty imaginable, but amplified by the pandemic – a man needing rent assistance as a landlord threatened eviction, a 22-year-old pregnant woman out of work and out of money, a senior whose water heater quit working, a deaf woman trying to leave an abusive spouse.
211WNY has been a program of VIA for about a decade. About half to three quarters of the information specialists answering the phones are blind or visually impaired. Last year during the pandemic, call volume to 211WNY almost doubled to nearly 82,000, said Renee DiFlavio, Sr. Vice President, Development of VIA. Providing the information that callers need to link them to services is a special skill executed with assistive technology and trained listening skills.
“Certainly if you’re visually impaired, there are many jobs you can do, but call center work is a great job because of the tele-technology,” DiFlavio said. “What’s also interesting is that it might be a model eventually for people to hire people who are blind or visually impaired to work those jobs.”
Many of the people on the end of the phone lines assisting callers learned their skills at the National Statler Center. The center offers programs for training in several fields, including customer service, hospitality, food prep, software applications, and communications.
“All of the work stations have adaptive technology with a dual-input headset,” said Ray Zylinski, Assistive Technology Instructor at VIA. “You’d hear the caller in one ear, and the computer audio in your other ear. It’s not something everybody can do. You’re essentially absorbing information from two different audio sources at once.”
People who work for 211WNY become adept at entering key words related to a caller’s issue to find human service agencies that could provide the caller with assistance.
More than 100 people have gone through the technology program at VIA’s Statler Center. While some work for 211WNY, others are in jobs with companies throughout the area, the result of the placement specialists at VIA, Zylinski said.
“Statistics show that a very high percent of individuals with low vision who can find employment don’t leave that job, so the attrition rate is significantly low,” Zylinski said. “That hits employers in their wallet, and then they tend to listen.”
That ability to listen is what made heroes of VIA’s assistive technology and referral specialists when so many people were in need of help.