By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Facing unprecedented demand and a shortage of volunteers, the Emergency Care Help Organization (ECHO) is gearing up for the next chapter in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has led to creative solutions for unimaginable concerns.
According to Eleanor Saunders, ECHO’s long-time executive director, the nonprofit this past fiscal year served twice as many people as the year before, when a record 15,500 clients received aid in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019. That number rose to more than 29,000 people served for the fiscal year ending June 30, thanks in great part to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
As a result, in March Saunders said she asked her volunteers — a strong core of about 100 people — to stay home, since most of them were senior citizens and thus more vulnerable to the dark side of the virus. As time wore on, she said, they continued to stay home, saying they loved ECHO and its mission, but they were not coming back until “things calmed down.”
That led to the last-minute establishment of the ECHO Youth Leadership program, which Saunders said was so successful she aims to continue it in years to come. It started with a Facebook call-out and resulted in a core of 48 committed high school students who essentially have kept ECHO rocking and rolling these past few months. Saunders explained that after working in the clothing room, food pantry, donation room and welcome center at both locations, youth volunteers meet for leadership in-service discussions, which include talks about poverty, regional hunger statistics, “the ECHO mission, our approach to fighting hunger and what sets us apart.”
Now, these student volunteers are headed back to school, “and we are in terrible need of volunteers, big-time,” Saunders said. “It’s crazy.”
Established in 1987, ECHO has a small staff and depends greatly on its core of volunteers — about 100 to 120 weekly — to collectively serve residents, living in 14 ZIP codes, at either of its two locations: in Brandon, at 507 North Parsons Ave., and in Riverview, at 7807 Capitano St.
To better meet the needs of south county residents, ECHO Riverview opened in 2018, serving an area that includes ZIP codes 33534, 33547, 33569, 33578, 33579 and 33619, which collectively covers Riverview, Lithia, Gibsonton, Palm River, Clair Mel and Progress Village. ECHO this year was expected to expand into Apollo Beach, Balm, Ruskin and Wimauma.
“Before COVID-19, that was the plan, to expand our service area,” Saunders said. “But right now we have to stabilize everything. We have to get through this pandemic first.”
To address pressing and evolving needs, Saunders said she hired a full-time person to run ECHO’s Opportunity Center, which provides back-to-work services, such as resume preparation, job coaching, and information about local employers and job openings. Clients also can earn their GED high school equivalency credential.
“When the weekly $600 federal unemployment benefit runs out, we expect a lot more people are going to come to us for help getting back into the job market,” Saunders said.
Indeed, the need for food will rise as well.
“We always need and appreciate non-perishable food donations,” Saunders said, in an interview July 27. “We have about six weeks [worth of food donations] in stock.”
Meanwhile, the back-to-school backpack drive has been a success, with a “phenomenal contribution from Suncoast Credit Union, which provided all the school supplies and backpacks,” Saunders said. “But we don’t have enough kids signed up to get them. No one’s thinking that way right now. Parents are still thinking if they’re even going to send their kids back to school [buildings].”
Saunders said the backpacks will be distributed to ECHO clients who need them.
To better handle the continued and expected rise in demand, and to ensure enough staff and volunteers on hand to collect, sort and provide client services, Saunders said ECHO’s rules have been adapted for the current times. Clients can come two times a month for food and two times a year for clothes; proof of residence is required to ensure clients live in one of the 14 service ZIP codes.
Established in 1987, ECHO today, like the community it serves, is facing unprecedented struggles and concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic, a reality, Saunders said, which is difficult to comprehend.
“You can’t get too far ahead of it [in your thinking],” Saunders added. “We’re just resolved to take it day by day because, otherwise, it gets too overwhelming and it’s discouraging. We have everything we need to serve people today. That’s how I have to roll.”
When the Great Recession hit, it was a troubling time as well, “but at least during the Great Recession we could still go out and network, invite people in for tours and make presentations out in the community,” Saunders said. “Now, it’s just so different. And there’s a huge degree of concern for my staff. I want to ensure their safety. I didn’t have to worry about that before.”
Toward that end, Saunders said everyone at ECHO — staff, volunteers, donors and clients — must wear a mask.
“We wear masks so we can honor those we serve,” Saunders said. “We have to stay healthy around here. We’re a small staff. If one of us goes down, it affects all of us.”