In the pandemic and utility crisis, Memphis' librarians are the hidden heroes

If you need help—with housing, utilities, food, childcare, mental health, or other big concerns—who do you call? For thousands of Mid-Southerners, it's the unsung heroes of LINC 2-1-1 who answer first.

LINC 2-1-1 operators fielded more than 7,600 calls in the month of July alone. Over 5,500 of them were about utilities. That number could be higher in August and September as thousands of households have their utilities cut off and thousands more are in danger.

“People are scared and they really don’t know what the future holds,” said Kim Jordan-Fluker, LINC's senior manager. “We’re a community connector.”

The Library Information Center or LINC is the most comprehensive database of human services organizations, government agencies, and volunteer groups in the region. 

Callers can dial 2-1-1 with virtually any problem and an information professional will talk through their issue then round up all available information for solutions. LINC is managed by Memphis Public Libraries in partnership with United Way and staffed by its librarians. 

LINC also partners with Neighborhood Christian Center to field calls for the elderly and disabled who need food delivered.

“[Librarians] don’t wear capes and they ask for no recognition,” said Christine M. Weinreich, executive director of the Memphis Library Foundation, of the MPL staff's commitment to the critical, front-line social services they provide. 
Kimberly Jordan-Fluker, senior manager of LINC 2-1-1. (Submitted)
Jordan-Fluker said LINC call volume has doubled since March as a result of the pandemic, protests, and economic crisis. She said many are first-time callers.

“We had to widen our scope when we thought about need,” said Jordan-Fluker. “There are so many people who are quietly suffering in our communities. Many have lost their jobs.”

She said the most frequent requests were for the basics. People are looking for the nearest food bank and ways to keep their lights on.

The hotline serves 11 counties across the Mid-South, including Shelby, Fayette, Lauderdale, Tipton, Desoto, Tate, Tunica, Marshall, and Crittendon.

The LINC team has 18 full-time operators and 11 additional substitutes to man the phones seven days a week.

Jordan-Fluker said her team dramatically shifted their operations this summer. They moved to a new location and made adjustments for COVID-19. Operators socially distanced themselves and worked on a rotating schedule.

She said that many callers are “COVID-depressed” and she’s worked to ensure her team can handle the emotional toll that comes with serving on the front lines.

“Even in the middle of this pandemic, if you are charged with being a help to the community, you have to keep your wits about you,” she said. “None of us signed up for this. None of us knew what to expect. But the level of compassion my team has shown has been phenomenal.”
 

SERVING BEHIND THE SCENES

Weinreich said that all of MPL's staff members are the unsung heroes of this year's health crisis.

“You have [librarians] who have real relationships with their patrons. They are checking on them. They are worried about them if they haven’t been able to connect with them," she said.

Libraries are now open across the city, but staff members are still providing virtual programming and resources. Their online usage is up 87% with a little over 97,000 online requests for its materials, programs, and services.

Behind the scenes, library staffers are providing COVID-19 contact tracing, delivering MIFA meals, and distributing meals to Shelby County Schools students. They are also producing video and audio recordings of the Shelby County Health Department's updates through the library’s radio and television stations.

Despite its myriad of services, MPL's general operating budget is funded primarily by the City of Memphis. It receives very little funding from state or federal government. Private dollars help pay for programs like DiscoverREAD, Cloud901, and JobLinc. The library foundation is a 5013(c) organization that helps to secure private, charitable support for the system's 18 branches.

Weinreich said that, ultimately, one of the greatest values of libraries is their ability to break down barriers to education and resources that keep people and communities from prospering. 

“The library is here for the community. We’re not going anywhere,” Weinreich said.

Read more articles by Ashley Davis.

Ashley Foxx Davis is an author, educator, artist and Memphis native. She's been featured in Glamour, Ebony, and Essence magazines; Blackenterprise.com; TheRoot.com; and BET.com. Find her at kifanipress.com.
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