Why Conferences Matter: A Member's Perspective

Posted By: Regina Wilson Inform USA Programs,

Gina Wilson has been an AIRS / Inform USA member since 2007. Her 47-year career focused primarily on nonprofits that address food insecurity and HIV/AIDS. She retired in 2019 and hopes to resume volunteering with United Way Dane County (WI) 211 in the coming year. 

Background: I’d been volunteering with United Way Dane County’s 211 since 2005, so when Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin (where I directed programs and partnerships) was implementing SNAP outreach in 2009, it seemed like a good idea to start a helpline to screen callers for possible eligibility and make appointments for those interested in meeting with a specialist who would provide in-person help with the application. As you’d guess, it was much more complicated than I imagined.

Initially, the helpline was only promoted in the 14 Wisconsin counties covered by Second Harvest, but went statewide about 6 years later when Feeding Wisconsin took over the entire SNAP outreach program for Feeding America-member food banks throughout Wisconsin. The 2009 AIRS conference in Reno was perfect place to find help!

At registration, I asked for the name of someone who could advise on how to get started, and was directed to Faed Hendry who listened patiently and immediately directed me to Bill York. I hadn’t initially planned to attend his session: what a mistake it would have been to miss it, as San Diego’s 211 had been doing SNAP screening and referral for a while. Bill and I connected before the session, and he shared quite a few examples from that program in his talk.

Following the conference, Bill sent us their helpline manual, scripts, and other documents, as well as responded to my never-ending questions. He was our unofficial mentor, and that SNAP helpline could NEVER have gotten off the ground as quickly as it did without him! More importantly, I credit Bill and that AIRS conference with putting food on the table for thousands of struggling Wisconsinites for years to come.

During that same conference, I also connected with a rep from the Language Line service at the vendor exhibition. Although I knew how critical language access would be on the helpline, I truly wasn’t sure how we could afford the service. Due to my personal AIRS membership, the rep generously granted the food bank their member rate, which trimmed a significant amount from our razor-thin budget, and ensured that both the helpline and assistance specialists could communicate with non-English speakers.

While I’m sure there were other great takeaways from that Reno conference, those were the ones I’m grateful for every single day, as they demonstrate how the power of information translates into improving the circumstances of people contacting I&R services. And that’s what it’s all about, eh?