By LINDA CHION KENNEY
The story of growth continues for the Emergency Care Help Organization, both in the number of people served and in the life-stabilizing programs and resources it offers to help people in need provide for themselves.
The latest development in ECHO’s mission to bridge the gap between crisis and stability is the expansion of ECHO South County into a second building at 7807 Capitano Street off Riverview Drive in Riverview, just east of U.S. 301.
Services in the first ECHO building opened in October 2018, with food and clothing provided to individuals and families in emergency situations.
According to ECHO Executive Director Eleanor Saunders, services in the second building will fulfill “the second half of ECHO’s mission, which is to connect people to life-stabilizing programs and resources.”
The buildings bookcase a playing field at the non-staffed Riverview Park and Recreation Center run by Hillsborough County Parks and Recreation.
ECHO services in the second building are set to include job-search assistance, financial literacy assistance, job coaching, GED instruction in English and Spanish and workshops on a variety of topics, including free certification training and shopping with coupons. Also included is help in getting assistance through online channels, including for unemployment insurance and for food stamp assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“It’s been really challenging for a lot of our clients navigating the complicated state unemployment and SNAP web sites,” Saunders said. “I recently helped someone who was supposed to renew her SNAP benefits but never got the letter in the mail. She was literally at the checkout at Walmart and couldn’t pay for her groceries. She came to us and we helped her get recertified, and then we helped her with food in the meantime.”
Also in a recent development, ECHO South County has expanded beyond its south Brandon, Riverview and Gibsonton coverage area to include also the communities of Apollo Beach, Ruskin and Sun City Center. Beyond Brandon, the original ECHO territory includes parts of east Tampa and other outlying territories, including Thonotosassa and Lithia.
Established in 1987, ECHO grew out of a partnership with the Brandon Ministerial Association and the Greater Brandon business community. Created so churches and other organizations could serve people in need in one central location, over the years ECHO became a respected food bank and clothes closet, serving people in Brandon and beyond. Eventually, the Brandon location, at 507 North Parsons Ave., expanded to include the same education, training and social services that ECHO South County is set to provide at its Riverview location.
Meanwhile, the need for basic services, including food, clothes and household furnishings, continues to grow, with more than 12,000 people served at the Riverview location since its opening in October 2018, Saunders said.
“We are thrilled we got the second building to use for a classroom space, welcome center and an office for an advocate who connects our clients to resources and services, including for affordable housing, subsidized childcare and help navigating social services web sites,” Saunders said. “Our mission is to end hunger, and, in order to do that, we know we need to address issues that run deeper than just temporary hunger.”
Whether it’s connecting people to education and training classes or to gainful employment, the goal is “to create opportunities for people to provide for themselves,” Saunders said.
Saunders said that while providing food and clothes has been a staple of ECHO operations for decades, the ongoing growth now is in a different direction.
“For us, it’s not we’re passing out more food than ever,” Saunders said. “How we’re growing is through one-on-one job coaching and the advocacy element of the services we provide.”
According to Saunders, 72 people since Oct. 1 “have found gainful employment through our job coaches at both ECHO locations.” And while “for hire” signs are increasingly posted throughout town at local shops and businesses, Saunders said they’re mostly for jobs paying at most between nine and 11 dollars.
“Do the math,” Saunders said, noting the increasingly pressing need for affordable housing in the Tampa Bay area, one of the fastest-growing areas in the nation. “You can’t pay $1,600 a month for rent and work for nine or 10 dollars an hour. The people coming to us looking for work need higher paying jobs.”
ECHO’s greatest need, Saunders added, “is for volunteers who are bilingual and have a social work background.”
ECHO officials prefer that donors drop off food at the centers and clothes and household furnishings at the ECHO Thrift store in Brandon, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.
The newly expanded ECHO Thrift storefront, at 424 West Brandon Blvd., is open to the public 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Clients seeking food and clothes from ECHO Brandon and ECHO South County must provide identification, their Social Security card and something that shows evidence that they live within the ZIP codes served. The centers in Brandon and Riverview are open for clients 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays.
For more information visit ECHO online at www.echofl.org or call 813-540-9880.