The Call: Answering the “How?” Question – An Insider’s View to a Resource: Pathfinder’s Information & Referral Program

A purple and orange four-squared image with four women. Top two squares are of Linda Brown (l) and Karen Mevis (r) with text "INFORMATION & REFERRAL," at the top right of their squares and "I & R COORDINATOR" at the bottom left of both squares. Bottom squares are of Andrea Castillo (l) and Jennifer Padron (r). Text on both orange squares: "MULTICULTURAL SERVICES," on the top right and "MS COORDINATOR," on the bottom left of both squares. Pathfinder's branded graphic is center of the image.

November begins the busy holiday season and planning for the holidays.  Whether it’s medicines or devices for travel, childcare or assisted care during work breaks, or having equal access to travel attractions, people are often in dire need of assistance during the holidays thus prompting searches for resources that may help. This is where the journey with Pathfinder begins.  Something as easy as picking up the phone and dialing 800-640-4636 can gain you access to various community services in the state of Tennessee. Sounds simple enough, right? However, there’s nothing simple about the service you receive when you call Pathfinder.

Care, attention to detail, active listening, and research skills honed by decades of experience are the first tools that come to my mind when describing the information and referral process of Pathfinder. Those tools go into answering the questions that come to Pathfinder daily, and many more during the holidays.

“How does Pathfinder do what we do? ” or as we like to call it, the “How question” is a subject that we have often discussed with callers, funding partners, and outreach participants. Most recently when the Pathfinder team discussed it during our strategic planning process, it became clear that we should share an inside view into Pathfinder’s Information and Referral (I&R) Program.

So, let’s answer the “How?” question.

We meet people where they are.
We are sensitive to issues of diversity and inclusion, and we are proud of the different lived experiences each person in our team represents. We look like the people who call us, and that is an important answer to the “How” question. Image with photos of Pathfinder TeamOur team includes individuals who identify as having a disability, parents and other family members of loved ones with disabilities. We and our families have experience living with multiple types of disabilities. We are diverse in age, and we are from different races and ethnic backgrounds. We each have experienced discrimination and faced challenges due to being in marginalized communities. We bring disability to the table for inclusion. It is who we are.

Image of Pathfinder's Values with a cream colored circular diagram.


Our values tell you a lot about us.



We answer the phones.
Usually, four of us take turns answering the phone calls and responding to the resource needs and questions received through online request forms or emails. Two members of our team – Linda Brown and I – answer the questions received from English-speaking persons. The remaining two – Jennifer Padron and Andrea Castillo – answer the questions and assist families and professionals in the Multicultural Services program. Jennifer explains that many of the persons they serve also speak English but may have grown up with a language other than English. When people are more comfortable or fluent speaking in their original language, Pathfinder accommodates them.  Both Jennifer and Andrea speak Spanish as do most of the people they serve. To serve those who speak other languages outside of English and Spanish, Pathfinder uses telephone interpreter services on a three-way phone call, to communicate with callers in their language.

It begins with a simple conversation but can become complex. Having “an actual person” answer their phone calls surprises and delights many of our callers. According to some callers, they have difficulty reaching an actual person at other organizations they contact, so they are quick to express their pleasure in speaking with a Pathfinder team member. However, when someone at Pathfinder is unavailable, the call goes to voice mail, and we return calls promptly.

We collect some information about the person and the resource need.
Active listening skills are important to better understand a caller’s needs with empathy and compassion. To gain important information from the caller, I structure the conversation by asking questions.  We first gain specific information — name, caller’s age or the age of the person they are calling about, the caller’s relationship to the person who is seeking one or more resources, their home county in Tennessee or the state where they live, and other details. Once we have those details, the conversation is steered to asking more in-depth questions to find out about the services they presently receive such as s SNAP, Social Security programs, Vocational Rehabilitation, etc. Most of this information is needed to find appropriate resources. It helps us to know who we serve and how to better provide resource information.

There are times when a caller wants something immediately and doesn’t want to give any information about themselves or doesn’t have the time to do it. For example, someone might call simply needing a phone number for an agency or the address for a particular office, like a county court clerk’s office. We try to accommodate them as quickly as possible. There are other times when a help request becomes a very long, detailed, and emotional conversation. Sometimes, for the emotional well-being of the caller, we may have to end conversations and schedule callbacks at times that are better for the caller. Regardless of their purpose for calling, we do ask the demographic and data questions of everyone to screen for the need and eligibility of the person and avoid duplication.

Often, when speaking with first-time callers, I lead the discussion with resources that I already know may be helpful or a good match. This is when people often identify what they have already tried.  As an experienced Information and Referral (I&R) Coordinator, it is not uncommon for me to listen between the lines as well for related needs, as I talk with a new contact. For example, I have asked many over the years, after learning that they need help to pay a bill, if they are able to provide food for themselves and their families. It’s important to recognize that people may often be food insecure, and also need help finding a food pantry or feeding program resources.

Before I conclude any conversation, I try to ensure that callers understand that their concerns are valid and their cases are important to us. If need be, I will continue to research until I find a resource.  On many occasions, during my research, if I find additional information of interest or possible benefits, I include those resources in follow-up emails.

None of our I&R Coordinators want to give resources that are not going to be helpful. I have received long lists of resources that ultimately were not helpful to me or my family. It was frustrating, time-consuming, and aggravating, so I work very hard not to do that to others. I am also honest with a caller who is seeking a resource that doesn’t currently exist. When a sought-after resource, like available income-based housing, we let people know about the likely prospect of being placed on waiting lists that take multiple years if an open waiting list can be found at all.

We customize the research
After talking to a person, we research what resources may be available to help meet their needs. I conduct a thorough search of resources using multiple sources, most frequently Pathfinder’s online directory of provider agencies. Programs change and sometimes it is necessary to verify the status of a particular program, find out if there are openings for services, and/or get other eligibility details.  This is another way that our information and referral team works to ensure that we are not giving our callers information that is not useful.  We all take the time to make calls and send emails to verify the information.

When we are at a loss for resources, we often consult members of our team, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center group, and our contacts and partners in the broader community of disability organizations to get information about organizations.  Networking has always been very important, and we plan to grow and enhance these relationships in the coming years through our strategic plan. Having these connections will without a doubt strengthen our referral process, and therefore boost outcomes for resource seekers.

We share the results
Typically, I email the acquired resources to a particular caller, although sometimes it is necessary to provide them verbally to a person who does not have access to email.  I have left them on a voice mail for someone who is unable to take notes, or unable to see. However, the majority of the follow-up communication is via email, where the links are provided from the Pathfinder website,, or directly from the agency’s website. I have found sharing resources this way makes it easier for the person.

Sometimes our research yields no results.  For those situations, I follow up with a phone call or email informing the caller that there are no resources in their area. However, I do like to take every opportunity to speak with the caller and try to find other possible solutions to fill that gap –which may involve other resources that exist.

Finally, it is important to always invite people to contact Pathfinder again if they have further questions or other resource needs in the future. “I’m the only Karen at Pathfinder,” I often say to make my name memorable and to help someone feel comfortable calling back.  Providing our direct contact information is another way that makes our callers feel comfortable and confident that they will get the help they need.  It also sets us apart from other referral services. Our goal is to provide a concierge-like service that helps people with disabilities, their family members, educators, and other professionals find and access resources, support, and services available to meet their needs.