By LINDA CHION KENNEY
Eleanor Saunders as the newly named Riverview Citizen of the Year paid tribute to the nonprofit that has been a big part of her life for almost nine years.
Saunders is executive director of the Emergency Care Help Organization (ECHO) in Riverview and Brandon, whose mission is to bridge the gap between crisis and stability. Toward that end, ECHO works to provide life-stabilizing programs and resources, including one-on-one job coaching, food pantry and clothing assistance and life-skills workshops.
Much beloved for more than 30 years, ECHO is on track to serve a record-breaking 30,000 neighbors this fiscal year, ending in June, a number reportedly that is more than double the average number of neighbors served.
At the Feb. 2 awards dinner presented by the Greater Riverview Chamber of Commerce, Saunders was named the 2023 Riverview Citizen of the Year, following in the footsteps of Betty Jo Tompkins, who won the award the year prior for her work in conservation and civic matters and affairs.
“To be honored after someone like that, it’s incredible,” Saunders said. “I’m so proud of my stellar team at ECHO.”
Saunders said she is respectful too of the widespread community support ECHO has achieved and maintained throughout the years, and especially so starting with Julian L. Kraft Jr., who provided the first space for ECHO to work at, in Brandon on Parsons Avenue.
“He’d be so proud of us today, and for all that we’re doing,” Saunders said. “Carol, his widow, is still our biggest cheerleader.”
ECHO last year moved its Riverview operation into larger quarters, from 7807 Capitano St. to 10509 Riverview Drive, home of the old Riverview library. The new and much larger Riverview library is at 9951 Balm Riverview Road.
“I always tell people I’m so thankful that we live in a community that supports ECHO, now in two main locations, where people can come and get help,” Saunders said. “Not a lot of communities have that support. And we are not dependent on the county or major grants. ECHO is community grass-roots supported.”
As for the need, it continues to grow, as do the communities represented by the 18 ZIP codes in unincorporated Hillsborough County that ECHO serves.
As the need deepens, so too do the plans for further ECHO expansion. According to Saunders, two locations are set to open over the next two years, including “down south in about one year” and a location “north in about two years.”
Meanwhile, one of ECHO’s biggest supporters is Tompkins herself, who shops often at ECHO Thrift stores, at 815 West Bloomingdale Ave., and at 424 W. Brandon Blvd.
“I am ECHO’s biggest customer,” Tompkins said, about the thrift stores that raise money for fresh food and other ECHO needs. “I’m always there buying stuff that I gift or repurpose. The great thing is that my purchases support ECHO, which is meeting a critical need that we’ve only seen getting greater and greater over the past several years.”
That ECHO is expecting to serve some 30,000 people this fiscal year is not surprising to Tompkins, who issues a dire warning.
“We’re going to have to be very conscious of the growing need,” Tompkins said. “People need help. They need help with food, with housing, with clothing and with educational and job training skills. ECHO is offering a comprehensive program to work towards helping the whole person.”
As for passing the baton to the newly named Riverview Citizen of the Year, Tompkins said she couldn’t be happier.
“I can’t think of anyone more deserving, and its’ not just for her work with ECHO,” Tompkins said. “It’s for the full range of programs, projects and activities that she’s been involved with over the years that make Riverview, Brandon and the whole Hillsborough County area a much better place.”
For more on ECHO, visit www.echofl.org. Call ECHO Riverview at 813-540-9880. Call ECHO Brandon at 813-685-0935.