By LINDA CHION KENNEY
With assistance that includes food, clothing and life-stabilizing programs and resources, the Emergency Care Help Organization, which has been open for more than a year in Riverview, fills a need for south county residents living through crisis situations.
“It’s more than just slapping a Band-Aid on the problem,” said ECHO volunteer Sabrina Peacock, a retired Hillsborough Community College dean. “We’re looking to help people become self-sufficient.”
Driven to bridge the gap between crisis and stability, ECHO South County, at 7807 Capitano Street, is an offshoot of ECHO in Brandon, at 507 North Parsons Ave.
Last year ECHO, at both campuses, collectively served a record-breaking 15,500 individuals, said ECHO Executive Director Eleanor Saunders. “We’re breaking records every year,” she added, “and we’re on trend to do it again this year.”
Meanwhile, ECHO Boutique, a storefront for ECHO Handmade, opened in June 2019 at 948 West Brandon Blvd. The award-winning social enterprise features professional, affordable clothing for women and the handiwork of out-of-work artisans and volunteers who transform excess clothing donations into repurposed accessories, including small bags, shoulder bags, totes and more. Shoppers are reminded that for every $10 spent, a family of five is fed. The boutique is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
ECHO South County in Riverview opened in October 2018 and is led by center director Steve McKinnon. Its service area covers ZIP codes 33534, 33547, 33569, 33578, 33579 and 33619, which collectively covers Riverview, Lithia, Gibsonton, Palm River, Clair Mel and Progress Village. ECHO’s goal over the next 12 months is to add Apollo Beach and Ruskin to the mix, Saunders said.
She reported that from October 2018 through June 30, 2019, ECHO South County served 1,667 individuals, including 724 families. From July 1 through Nov. 30, the campus served 1,473 individuals, including 672 families.
“That means what we did in [nine] months we’ve almost already done in the first five months of the current fiscal year,” Saunders said. “It’s telling me the word is out. The folks in south county know to come to ECHO.”
To help meet the need, ECHO depends on community partnerships. “The groups that help us the most are the 30 local schools that host food drives, the annual postal food drive in May and our church partners who participate in the annual Feed the Bay initiative,” Saunders said.
Moreover, the newly opened Sprouts in Riverview donates hundreds of pounds of food weekly, including fresh salads and produce, baked goods and prepared meals, said Victor Fugate, a University of South Florida student and program manager for the ECHO Opportunity Center. The center provides life-rebuilding services, including GED classes in English and Spanish, financial literacy counseling, computer access and employability training to boost resume–writing, job-search and job-interview skills.
“I love what I do,” Fugate said. “The impact, that’s the biggest thing for me, the thousands of families we see every year that otherwise would be having a lot harder time than they already face. We see people from all walks of life. We all are just one or two crises away from being a client of ECHO.”
ECHO volunteers are needed to collect and sort donations and work with families to receive the aid and referrals they need.
“For me, serving feeds my spiritual needs,” said volunteer Athena Kaldani. “If I’m not serving, I’m not happy.”
“I really just want to help,” said Belinda Lawson. “I live in Riverview, I’m retired and I needed something to do that was worthwhile.”
Nancy Sanders voiced a similar sentiment. “I’ve always had a heart for people who need help,” she said. “It’s hard for me to eat knowing that people in my neighborhood don’t have food.”
Founded in 1987 in partnership with the Brandon Ministerial Association and business community, ECHO was created so churches and other organizations could send people in need to one central location. Julian Craft and his family have been instrumental in establishing and supporting ECHO throughout the years. Craft died in 2017.
ECHO South County in Riverview is open for donations and people in need 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. Individuals with stable housing can receive aid once in a six-month period, which includes perishable and non-perishable food based on the family’s size, plus seven outfits for each family member. Neighbors must show photo identification, one piece of mail showing a current address and an original Social Security card for each family member receiving aid. Homeless neighbors are eligible to receive clothing and non-perishable food once every 30 days. As for donations, the greatest need as of Jan. 6 was for full-sized toiletries, undergarments and socks.