Observer News: Center celebrates anniversary of helping needy help themselves

ECHO Client Service Center serves communities from Gibsonton to Brandon

By Kevin Brady, Observer News

Business is booming at a neighborhood service center designed to help those who have fallen on hard times.

Serving communities from Gibsonton to Brandon, the ECHO Client Service Center will mark a birthday this month with one candle; the center opened 12 months ago.

“I wanted to have a place to help guide people who needed help to the exact place they need to go,” said Stacy Efaw, director of the Emergency Care Help Organization. “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.”

Founded in 1987, ECHO has helped more than 140,000 area residents, more than half of them children, with food and clothing. The non-profit group opened the service center last May, hoping to equip clients with the tools they need so they don’t have to return to ECHO in the future.

It’s already served more than 11,000 clients in 12 months.

“It’s been a blessing for our clients, some of whom come in broken and embarrassed, but we are able to help,” said Sharmaine Burr, who oversees the center with the help of volunteers and interns. The center’s only full-time employee, Burr sees up to 50 clients a day come through her door.

Before the center opened, ECHO could help only with food and clothing and would direct clients to other resources, often a government office in a downtown Tampa, which, for families without a car, meant a whole other ordeal.

Today, anyone applying for help at ECHO is first screened by the service center.

“They will come and say ‘I need food,’ but if you sit down and talk to them you uncover some of the reasons they need food, which can be anything from medical bills to needing a job,” Efaw said. “We let them know about resources many don’t know are available.”

The small office and friendly atmosphere also help, Efaw believes. “It’s a lot less intimidating here than a large social service agency.”

The service center, opened in a former storage area next to ECHO’s main office in Brandon, is a one-stop shop where clients can not only get food and clothing but, more importantly for their long-term recovery, sign up for aid programs and get help finding a job.

“There are two main reasons why people come to ECHO,” Efaw said. “They don’t have a job or they don’t have food stamps. We’re working on the food stamps but work is a big issue and hopefully we’ll be able to help somewhat on that.”

At the center, clients can 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. ECHO also links clients with workforce training programs.

A new program, a partnership with Tampa Bay Workforce Alliance, allows anyone looking for work to train at ECHO for a job in retail. ECHO also hopes to offer classes in customer service soon, allowing those looking for work to add to their resume while they are pounding the pavement.

“The goal over the next year is to get people back to work,” Efaw said.

Free GED classes, started in March, are also very popular, Efaw said. The classes are offered Tuesday from 9 a.m. to noon and Thursday from 2 to 4 p.m. Free computer training classes are also available.

“We want to help people get to the point where they are able to apply for jobs — there are volunteers here who will help with resumes — or apply for college or a trade school. We have a great relationship with local colleges.”

“I think the client center has allowed us to work directly with other agencies to expand critical services to those in need,” said Irma Davila, a member of ECHO’s executive board and former board president. “Healthy living classes, GED classes, workforce help and food stamps are all services available through other agencies. Our goal was to bring the organizations together and try not to duplicate efforts.”

ECHO serves Brandon, Riverview, Gibsonton, Dover, Lithia, Seffner and Valrico. It assists around 11,000 area residents a year, more than half of them children. Greater Brandon’s Gift of Hope, a Thanksgiving and Christmas program, helps a further 6,000.

There is no shortage of local need for groups like ECHO, according to a recent Feeding America Tampa Bay “Hunger In America” hunger study.

Among other key findings in the report:
•    The Feeding America system served by Feeding America Tampa Bay provides emergency food for an estimated 409,700 different people annually.
•    Thirty-seven percent of the members of households served by Feeding America Tampa Bay are children under age 18.
•    Twenty-two percent of households include at least one employed adult.
•    Among households with children, 93 percent are food insecure and 58 percent are food insecure with very low food security.
•    Fifty-eight percent of clients served by Feeding America of Tampa Bay report having to choose between paying for food and paying for utilities or heating fuel.
•    Thirty-seven percent had to choose between paying for food and paying for medicine or medical care.
The study was conducted by the national Feeding America food bank network and created by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.
The Brandon Food Pantry at ECHO distributes up to one week of nutritious food for each family and is always willing to accept donations of the following non-perishable food items:
•    Canned meats
•    Jelly
•    Peanut Butter
•    Spaghetti Sauce
•    Canned Fruit
•    Canned Pasta
•    Rice
•    Macaroni and Cheese

To donate, volunteer or enquire about the services at ECHO visit the group’s web site or office at 507 N. Parsons Ave. in Brandon or call (813) 685-0935.