By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Holiday spirits are not so high for an increasing number of neighbors who find themselves in need of food, clothing, affordable housing and life-supporting jobs, all of which make the work of the Emergency Care Help Organization ever more pressing.
Leading the charge are ECHO employees and volunteers, who through emergency centers and thrift store locations in Brandon and Riverview, work tirelessly to provide resources, services and connections that bridge the gap between crisis and stability.
“Again, the need continues to be incredibly high,” said Steve McKinnon, ECHO development manager. “It’s a record-breaking year.”
According to McKinnon, ECHO for eight years in a row served roughly 15,000 individuals a year through its centers in Riverview and Brandon. That was prior to the past fiscal year, which ended June 30, for which the number jumped to 23,000 individuals.
“Now, four months into our new fiscal year, which started July 1, we’re on pace to serve 30,000 individuals, and that’s double our average for the eight years prior to fiscal year 2023,” McKinnon said.
In part, the need stems from ECHO’s expansion, which makes it more accessible to the people it serves in south Hillsborough County. For decades ECHO has been in Brandon, at 507 North Parsons Ave., where it grew to serve 14 ZIP codes. Now, it serves 17 ZIP codes, with both Brandon and a newly opened emergency center in the old Riverview library, at 9951 Balm Riverview Drive. ECHO moved into that 8,000-square-foot space after moving out of a smaller location off Capitano Street in Riverview, which it first occupied four years ago.
With greater accessibility for people in need, numbers will increase, McKinnon said, but that’s not to discount the overwhelming need borne of today’s post-pandemic, inflationary times.
“The crisis is pretty easy to understand when you look at rent increases, fuel cost increases, food price increases, interest rate increases and the rising cost of energy and insurance,” McKinnon said. “During COVID, people were getting subsidies, and that’s gone now, all of which has put a lot of people in desperate straits.”
As McKinnon put it, “all factors are against those unfortunate folks who are hovering around the poverty line.”
It works at both ends as well, with a decrease in folks who have the means to give. ECHO, since its founding, has depended on the support of its community to “step up and support us and enable us to provide more and more programs and services,” McKinnon said. The nonprofit’s main selling point, he added, is that the funnel is driven by neighbors helping neighbors, with all money raised locally spent locally, for people ECHO calls “neighbors” and not “clients” or “customers.”
Along with price and rate increases, “it’s a soft giving year, which is a setback as well,” McKinnon said. “Giving is down nationwide because of all of the same things that impact people at the poverty level or below. The people who have money are actually giving more, but we’ve lost that level of middle-class people who had some to give but can’t give it anymore because of increased gas, food, rent and interest rate payments. The masses that were giving small dollars can’t afford to do it anymore.”
Yet, as the demand builds and people still have the heart to give, ECHO continues in its mission to collect donations and partner with outside agencies and businesses, large and small, to help people acquire and attain food, clothing, shelter, employment, transportation and other essential services.
Both need and success are in the numbers.
According to McKinnon, over the past three years, ECHO teams have put 454 neighbors into new jobs, a number that today is trending about 15 jobs a month. “We also have our advocacy team members, who are helping people with any and all kinds of housing crises, including people fleeing domestic violence and people transitioning from temporary to permanent housing,” McKinnon said. “Last month alone we saw 615 individuals.”
In the end, ECHO is concerned with addressing the same basic needs it has addressed since its founding.
“People have to have enough food to eat tonight, so we’ve always offered food and clothing, which is the first step to stabilize your life,” McKinnon said. “We continue to rely on the support of the community, which today has continued to step up and support us and enable us to provide the additional programs and services needed.”
To donate nonperishable food items, visit the emergency resource centers in Brandon and Riverview, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Drop off clothing in good and clean condition at either of the two ECHO thrift stores, at 424 West Brandon Blvd., or 815 West Bloomingdale Ave., Brandon.
“We would love to get clothes, shoes and accessories for men, women and children, Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” McKinnon said. And rest assured, he added, “all the good stuff” first goes to the emergency resource centers for distribution to people in need, which amounts to “as many as 200 families a week, on average, between the Riverview and Brandon emergency centers.”
For more on ECHO’s needs, locations, events, hours and donation opportunities, visit www.echofl.org/.