211. Remember that number. Imprint it in your mind like 411, or 911. It should come that easy.

What is it? Apparently it is A Great American Secret. You would think it wouldn’t be, given that millions of people around the country have gotten help from calling that number. Still, not many people know that if you are in trouble—say your house is being foreclosed, or you can’t afford medicine, or you are afraid to take your daughter to the hospital because you don’t have insurance, or you husband just died and left you and your kids with bupkis, or you don’t have gas money to get to your job, or, or, or…… Or, maybe it’s not you, but your neighbor. No electricity. No heat. No food. You don’t know what to do. How to help. Well now you do.

Walk over to them, hand them your phone, and tell them to call 211. An operator will answer and link them with help. Just like 911, but this emergency is poverty.

I didn’t know about 211 until my husband, Chuck, was asked to be in a film about the help line called American Winter. The show premiers tonight at 6 PM Eastern, 9 PM Pacific time on HBO and will continue to air at various times on HBO through April. (schedule) The film features eight Oregon families who made that phone call, and boy is it eye opening. Raw. Real. We see the courage of people facing situations they never thought they’d face.

And that—their shock, surprise, shame and strength—is what makes American Winter such a powerful film. These people did not see poverty coming, did not notice the out of control economy rounding the bend. And when they did, they certainly didn’t expect it to run right over their lives, just like it did millions of others.

American Winter puts a face on this problem, and gives pause to the ludicrous lies that are coming out of congress.

You know what drives a thriving economy? It’s not the rich. It’s a thriving middle class. They are the ones that create the jobs because they are the ones that create demand for goods. Period. Kill off the middle class, as we have been, and you kill off this economy.

Don’t believe me? Watch this. It’s stunning.

And so, American Winter. You can watch it tonight. Or you can watch it anytime on HBOGO. Or you can buy the film and show it at your church, or book group, or senior center, or have it playing at the bar, share it on Facebook, but turn it on and let people know.

211—there is help waiting.

-Naseem Rakha 3/18/13