Why Conferences Matter: A Member's Perspective
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.