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ECHO Expansion Completed

Springfield charity organization rededicates expanded building.

After five months of construction and five years of planning and fund raising, Springfield's ECHO — Ecumenical Community Helping Others — has about twice the building it used to have.

"The building lasted about 20 years, and we were coming out of the doors, the windows — bursting at the seams," said Pat Gauthier, the charity's executive director. ECHO rededicated the building Sunday, Oct. 15, about five weeks after moving back in.

The organization has been in Springfield since 1968 and in the current location at 7205 Old Keene Mill Road, near Springfield Plaza, since the mid-1980s. "Originally, we helped a lot of rural poor," said Gauthier, who has been with ECHO almost since its formation. Since then, she said, the population has grown, and foreign wars, in particular, have brought an influx of people in need.

Since the move into the building 20 years ago, the organization's clientele has increased, as have donations and volunteerism, said Gauthier. She added that volunteers were having trouble finding a quiet place to interview clients. "Privacy was a big issue," she said. "It's very important to maintain the privacy of our clients."

ECHO serves all of Springfield and part of Burke, and Gauthier estimated that it provides assistance to about 1,000 families per year, many of them on a regular basis. For example, families can stop in for clothing up to three times a year. Many clients are referred by Fairfax County Social Services, and many more by the 24 churches and synagogues that are members of ECHO, she said.

With the new building and increased visibility, Gauthier said she expects the case load to increase.

ALTHOUGH MUCH of the work for the expansion was performed either pro bono or at a reduced rate, the project cost close to $900,000, Gauthier said, "so that was a pretty big fund-raising effort." The money was raised in part through charity golf tournaments at the Springfield Country Club, restaurant benefits, a benefit at Whole Foods and ECHO's two annual yard sales, said Gauthier. "And, of course, we solicited everyone we knew." She noted that the organization's own volunteers contributed a total approaching $70,000.

John Frazee, ECHO's head of finance, noted that a grant from the state and a matched gift donation of about $50,000 from an anonymous foundation in Richmond also helped. He said the organization also obtained some financing from the local Prosperity Bank & Trust.

"It cost far more than we had planned," he said, noting that the original estimate had been closer to $400,000. Frazee said the permitting process took longer than expected, and prices of building materials rose, particularly following Hurricane Katrina.

During construction, said Gauthier, the organization's clothing operation had to be closed down, but it is now operational again. The new space is being used for storage, opening up more room for operations in the original space, she said.

ECHO currently enlists the aid of about 375 volunteers, she said. "Now that the expansion is finished, we're picking up more, and we need more."

The organization is also preparing for the holiday season. It will be providing Thanksgiving and holiday dinners, for which a volunteer family will buy the unprepared food and deliver it to the home of a family in need. In mid-December, ECHO will set up a holiday store, where families can pick up clothing and toys for their children. Gauthier said donations of new items are needed to stock the store.

"Right now, we're extremely short of heavy winter jackets," she added. "Especially for children. Little boys wear them out, you know." She noted that food is also running low, but area Boy Scouts will be conducting a food drive Nov. 11.

"We always need pots and pans and small appliances, like blenders and coffee pots," said Anita Eitler, who co-chairs the housewares department.

Eitler has been volunteering at ECHO since 1988. "At first, I just started working once a month, then twice a month. Now, I'm working about twice a week," she said. "The greatest thing about this place is the people."

"It's an interesting place to volunteer because you've got such a variety of people," said Frazee. "There's no one church that dominates it."

Gauthier said she wanted to focus attention on the efforts of ECHO's many volunteers and off of herself, but volunteer Bill Tammaro went out of his way to point out that Gauthier and her husband, John, were "the two people most active" in the organization. "My personal opinion is that these people are extraordinary," Tammaro said. "They could be running a sizable business with the amount of time and effort they put into this."