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October 12, 2001

Engaging Iowans via the phone

by Anne Krapfl
Daylilies forgot to bloom this year? Struggling with your 15-year-old son's behavior? Black licorice melted into your carpet? Landlord canceled your lease five months early? Pick up the phone; most likely there's an ISU extension specialist who can point you in the right direction.

From its first "seed gospel train" tour of 96 Iowa counties in 1904 to self-help Web sites today that receive as many as 4 million hits each year, ISU Extension always has been about sharing helpful information with Iowans.

For the last 20 years or so, a key outreach tool for Extension specialists has been telephone hotlines; currently there are eight lines sponsored by the university. The oldest, known by many as the "Answer line," goes back to 1975; the newest is the state's "Bets Off" gambling treatment line, which ISU Extension received in July through a contract with the state department of public health.

"We've been in the hotline business a long time. The challenge is to see how we can grow this opportunity," said Jane Ann Stout, associate dean for families in the College of Family and Consumer Sciences. Six of the hotlines operate under the families unit. "We hope eventually to move to virtual reference desks, but it's still important that we identify multiple ways for people to contact us 24 hours a day. The hotlines are a piece of that service," Stout said.

Three of the hotlines originate from campus locations. Five are housed in the extension outreach center in Urbandale, where, collectively, they average about 1,400 calls per month. Margaret Van Ginkel, a families specialist who coordinates and promotes the hotlines, says the economies-of-scale rule applies to hotlines.

"The hotline business is a crazy one. Sometimes you're swamped with calls and other times the phone just doesn't ring," she said. "It's difficult, funding-wise, to staff a single hotline."

Her strategy has been to identify counseling and referral subjects that are similar or at least allow hotline staffers to be cross-trained. The Urbandale center is home to the Iowa Concern hotline, started during the farm crisis of the early 1980s as the "Rural Concern" line. (Extension broadened the name during the 1993 flood, when many Iowans sought answers but assumed the "Rural Concern" line couldn't help them.) Counselors, including a full-time lawyer, handle inquiries about financial distress, legal issues, domestic abuse, family problems and meeting basic needs such as shelter, food, fuel or medical help. That same team also responds to "Farm On," a division of the line that matches beginning and retiring farmers.

ISU Extension contracts with the Iowa Department of Public Health to provide two other hotlines from the Urbandale center, Teen Line and Iowa Healthy Families. Van Ginkel hires Des Moines-area school counselors to staff Teen Line during its peak use times, roughly 3 to 8 p.m. Callers to Teen Line receive information or referrals about topics such as stress, drug and alcohol use, nutrition, eating disorders, dating relationships, pregnancy, violence and AIDS/HIV. Callers to the Healthy Families line receive information, usually from a nurse, on child care, infant and child health, prenatal care and other health-related topics including health care and insurance options for low-income families.

"People don't use some of our hotlines until they really need it. Crises, such as the big floods, or the terrorist attacks last month, help publicize our services because that's when the TV and radio stations share our phone numbers," she said.

All live, all the time
Thirty-five years ago, each county extension office had its own specialists, including a home economist, Stout said. As extension funding and staffing changed, extension leaders sought ways to continue to offer services with fewer staff. Telephone hotlines were born out of that staffing shift.

The first, "Answer line," offers solutions to what once were known as home economics dilemmas: flat cookies, a flooded basement, stained clothes or carpets, safe warm weather picnic foods, food substitutions, etc. Joyce Greving, an "Answer line" specialist for 10-plus years, said callers are grateful for the help.

"A frequent comment I got on the line is that it was nice to have a real person to talk to," she said. "Most states offer recorded messages on their hotlines."

Richard Jauron helping a caller to ISU's Hortline
Horticulture specialist Richard Jauron helps a caller to ISU's Hortline. Photo by Bob Elbert.
Horticulture specialist Richard Jauron has been the steady voice of the ISU Hortline since 1983. In fact, the hotline predates him only by about nine months. Hortline is the only hotline today that isn't free to the caller, but that hasn't always been the case.

"As more people became aware of Hortline, I was doing 8,000 calls a year. It got to the point I couldn't keep up, and for three or four years, there were two of us taking calls," he recalled. "By then, we were handling 16,000 to 17,000 calls a year and we still couldn't keep up. We couldn't afford a third staff member to answer calls, so the decision was made in 1997 to switch to a (area code) 515 number. The calls fell off drastically."

In 1997, Jauron took 6,700 calls and now averages about 4,500 callers each year still about 18 calls a day.

Like most hotline specialists, he has his own "system." A lot of information is available to him in a database, but arguing that his computer is too slow, he usually opts for the set of reference books and subject file folders that line his desk. And, after 18 years at this job, a lot of the information he shares -- up to 75 percent, he estimated -- is in his head.

To allay that "the phone's not ringing" trend Van Ginkel warned about, Jauron responds to questions that come in via mail and e-mail versions of Hortline. He also prepares for a weekly horticulture talk show on WOI-AM Radio, writes gardening pieces for community newspapers and teaches classes in extension's Master Gardener program.

"In the horticulture department, we consider every Iowan a client, or at least a potential client," said Jeff Iles, chair of the department. "Consumer horticulture is huge in this state. If you value the land-grant tradition, and we do, we know we need to serve that group of consumers. Hortline is an important part of that."

ISU Extension phone hotlines

Bets Off 800-238-7633
Families Answer Line 800-262-3804
Farm On (division of Iowa Concern) 800-447-1985
Hortline 515-294-3108
Iowa Concern 800-447-1985
Iowa Healthy Families 800-369-2229
PORKline 800-808-7675
Teen Line 800-443-8336

... Becoming the Best
Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-4111
Published by: University Relations,
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