It's been a long time coming, but Stacey Efaw, director of the Emergency Care Help Organization in Brandon, never doubted that the newly opened ECHO Client Service Center would, indeed, open its doors.
To celebrate that crowning achievement of a 25-year mission, volunteers, supporters and clients were in attendance Sept. 28 at the center's ribbon-cutting ceremony.
On hand to celebrate another grand step forward in the ECHO undertaking were Julian Craft and Vince Ferraro, two community members who helped launch ECHO as a community mission to feed and clothe neighbors who fall on tough times because of emergency situations.
"I just think it's wonderful, to have a caring group of people in the community," Craft said. Brandon "always has been" that kind of community, he added.
"Brandon is a very unusal town, it's a loving town," he said. "It cares and it gives."
Ferraro and Craft said ECHO sprung from the Brandon Ministerial Association, which is ready to close down as ECHO and I Am Hope Cafe, another grassroots driven initiative to help the homeless and jobless, continue to cement their standing in the community.
There was a time, Ferraro noted, that ECHO, then just a clothes closet, was slated to close its doors, its undertakings too much for the association at the time to carry through with.
"And Julian said, 'No,' " Ferraro recalled. "He took up the cause and raised money overnight to make sure that wouldn't happen and look where it is today."
Where ECHO is today is a food and clothes closet that serves more than 11,000 people annually, helping out with food, clothes and furnishings on an emergency basis for up to four times in a person's lifetime.
But with the Sept. 28 ribbon-cutting at 507 North Parsons Ave., the ECHO mission took on an even deeper realization, with the opening of a client service center to better meet the whole needs of an individual living through tough times.
The vision was "to have a one-stop place in Brandon to help them here or to guide them to the exact place they need to go," said Stacey Efaw, ECHO's executive director. "We can give them food and clothing but they have other needs and I felt at times that we were just shipping them off to some other place."
At the center, Efaw noted, clients can learn about and sign up electronically for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps; the Temporary Cash Assistance Program; Medicaid; and Healthy Kids insurance.
In addition, the plan is to work with Hillsborough Coummunity College and others to provide workforce training and classes and to provide counseling and assistance to better meet the needs of clients who find themselves in dire situations because of tough times, emergency situations or an ailing economy.
Sharman Burr, a graduate of the counseling and human services honors program at Hillsborough Community College, was at the ECHO groundbreaking. Now a student at St. Petersburg College, going for a bachelor's degree in human services, Burr volunteers at the ECHO Client Service Center.
"I love it," Burr said. "It has really given me a new opinion of what this is, what we're supposed to be doing. This is my gift, this is my calling. Every day I get to play with somebody's baby. Every day I get to cry with somebody. This is the real world. Our community is where it's at."
The ECHO Client Service Center is house in the part of ECHO that once was used to stock food. Now, in partnership with Feeding America Tampa Bay, that food is stored in that group's Tampa Distribution Center of Route 41.
Pat Rogers, exeutive director of Feeding America Tampa Bay, was at the Sept. 28 ribbon-cutting.
"Collaboration, that's what this is," she said. "We can store food for them and they can work to serve and take care of the whole person."
Feeding America Tampa Bay "makes the food part as efficient as possible" for area charities, including ECHO, "so they can expend the services that help people get back to work" and get back on their feet.
According to Rogers, Feeding America Tampa Bay works with about 600 registered 501(c)(3) charities in 10 counties, including Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Polk.
- To learn more about ECHO's expanded role, see ECHO Grows With Client Service Center.