Hawai‘i Gives Back: 211 is Hawai‘i’s Lifeline for Those In Need

Aloha United Way steps up to address Hawai‘i’s rising needs.


Aloha United Way

Photo: Courtesy of Aloha United Way



When COVID-19 arrived in Hawai‘i last year, Aloha United Way saw firsthand how it impacted the state. In 2019, the local nonprofit’s 211 Helpline had received over 82,000 inquiries for assistance, including from residents with barriers or limited access to support, providing a critical lifeline in their time of need. But by the end of 2020, that number had dramatically increased to 173,832 inquiries from people from all walks of life. Families that couldn’t pay rent, kūpuna asking about vaccinations, and hardworking individuals in hospitality that had lost their jobs–they all needed help.


“We heard countless stories from individuals who had been giving to AUW for years but now for the first time, they were the ones calling to get help,” says the nonprofit’s president and CEO, John Fink. “It was clear to us how COVID-19 impacted everyone across the board.”


As the state’s only comprehensive community information and referral help line, Aloha United Way’s 211 had to step up. “Through the ever-increasing community needs over the past 18 months, Aloha United Way’s 211 service has become the state’s de facto information and referral service,” Fink says.


The organization’s team increased its hours of operation by 60 hours every week and hired 22 more specialists to answer the massive influx of calls, texts, emails and live chats. The team also set up the Kūpuna Call Center in partnership with the state Department of Health, the City and County of Honolulu and St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawai‘i. It’s the state’s first and only statewide COVID-19 vaccination referral system of its kind, where 211 Helpline specialists help seniors get into the St. Francis Healthcare vaccination program to schedule their appointments and transportation as needed.


So, How Exactly Does the 211 Helpline Work?

Each 211 specialist hired by Aloha United Way undergoes four weeks of intensive training to learn how to respond to callers and continue the conversation to provide referrals to more comprehensive services.


If you’re hungry, the specialist will not only refer you to local food pantries in your area, but also inquire about eligibility for food assistance benefits and other long-term support services you might need. The 211 Helpline “now provides three to four referrals per call, as opposed to the pre-COVID era, when individuals usually had just one area of concern,” Fink says. “Health care, mental health, food needs, shelter and eviction concerns, kūpuna care, keiki care, employment concerns, the list goes on and on.”


“Aloha United Way’s 211 service has become the state’s de facto information and referral service.”

–John Fink

The help line is primarily supported through AUW’s generous donors. As needs have grown exponentially over the past 18 months—incoming inquiries have increased between 400% and 1,000% at its peak—and AUW has grown from five to 27 trained specialists to help handle the demand. Personal crises do not care what time it is, but AUW is there to help, 15 hours a day, providing a lifeline especially when all other services are closed (early mornings, late nights and weekends). The 211 Helpline refers callers to over 4,000 programs and 1,300 agencies statewide, with on-demand interpreters available for callers who need language assistance.



From Sept. 1, 2020- Sept. 1, 2021, 211 received a total of 63,793 calls.

  • 33% Housing & Shelter
  • 19.7% *Other
  • 15.8% Health Care & COVID-19
  • 10.6% Utilities
  • 7.5% Food


*Other includes: Help with general information and referral, complaints, government, community enrichment donations, volunteering, advocacy, and special population services.