2-1-1 service is line of defense for veterans in need

Tim GrealisMilitary veterans seeking help from United Way 2-1-1 do not see it, but a special flag literally oversees their conversation. Tim Grealis, United Way of Greater Cleveland Veteran’s Line coordinator, works under a framed U.S. flag that honors his Uncle Pete’s Navy service.

United Way 2-1-1 connects people to social, health and government services via phone and website. Grealis, an Air Force veteran, specializes in aiding fellow vets and active military personnel who call the 2-1-1 Help 2 Veterans service. This dedicated service for veterans debuted on Veterans Day 2013 and in its first year served more than 10,500 veterans.

Grealis’ father and grandfather are also veterans; and while Grealis spent his military service handling classified documents, there is nothing top secret about his work with 2-1-1.

“We honor their dedication to service,” said Bill Kitson, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Cleveland, when the service was unveiled. “This help line is a way of ensuring we are leaving no one behind. We are dedicated to helping veterans and because firsthand knowledge of the rigors of military and military life sometimes eases the conversation, we’ve hired veterans to answer the 2-1-1 veterans line.”

Grealis said the three primary issues facing veterans who call 2-1-1 are homelessness, rent assistance and utility assistance.

“Cuyahoga County is home to more than 80,000 veterans; 2-1-1 has helped more than 10,000 of them,” Grealis said. “In addition to crisis intervention, we advocate for vets and pair them with health care, education and employment agencies to help them get back on their feet for the long haul.”

Charles Farris Jr. is an Air Force veteran who called 2-1-1 after spending a night in a doorframe in sub-zero weather. He credits Grealis and 2-1-1 with more than helping him find shelter and food.

“Tim and 2-1-1 saved my life,” he said. “The wind chill was 30 below zero and I had been thrown out of my house; I was not dressed for the weather. I had early stages of frostbite. The police could not help me and the hospital released me to the street. A friend let me borrow his phone and told me to call 2-1-1; that moment, Tim helped me get transportation to a shelter. If not for Tim, I would have froze to death on the street that night.

“Tim also directed me to the service that helped me get my veterans benefits. I now have a job; I am a graduate of Veterans Upper Bound at Cuyahoga Community College; I have the health services I need. I could not have done it without Tim and 2-1-1.”

Because he is a veteran, Grealis said he can talk tough when he needs to.

“When a caller tells me I don’t understand what they went through in the service, I can tell them, ‘Yes, I do’,” he said. “When vets are sent to me from the main 2-1-1 line, they know they are working with a fellow vet and I can speak their language.”

Diane Gatto, 2-1-1 director, said staffing the help center with specialists like Grealis is crucial to its success.

“A veteran may not be as forthcoming with a general 2-1-1 call taker as they will be with a fellow veteran like Tim,” she said. “Tim can peel back the onion a little bit more because he is a peer. He does a great job and is very passionate about what he does.”

Grealis said we honor military personnel on Veterans Day, but 2-1-1 is available to them 24/7, every day of the year.

“We have story after story of helping veterans,” Grealis said, his Uncle Pete’s framed casket flag behind him. “It’s an honor and privilege to serve those who served for us, and a matter of pride to be here for them.”

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