(Clockwise from top left) ECHO volunteers Pat Norton of Springfield, Eileen McGirl of Burke, Patsy Maddox of Fairfax and Jean Chandler of Burke assess and sort donated kitchen wares.
Photo by Tim Peterson.
Duane Carlson and his wife Alice are sorting canned goods into a long row of evenly spaced paper bags, each representing a family. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, there’s a vibrant energy among volunteers buzzing around the Ecumenical Community Helping Others (ECHO) building in Springfield. The nonprofit basic need for assistance organization is open year-round, and now it has the feeling of Santa’s workshop.
Duane, Pastor Emeritus at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Springfield, and Alice still volunteer once a week after hatching the idea for ECHO 46 years ago, along with nine other Springfield and Burke churches. Seeing a rapidly growing need in their community for food and basic household items, Duane said the founding philosophy was simple.
“We had the idea that there are always people who are interested in helping other people,” he said. “Don't expect everybody to be interested because they aren't, that's the way it is. But if you can recruit those people like this, you see them all around here, my goodness what you can do.”
With a bench of 400 volunteers and a board of 26 church congregations, you can develop a client base of over 1,500 and move over 200,000 pounds of donated food to those clients in a year. ECHO offers clothing, school supplies and limited financial assistance to families in crisis, but food and basic home goods are their main outreach.
“We service the perennial poor, those people who work contract labor jobs, or are on fixed incomes,” said ECHO Executive Director Meg Brantley, “that do OK for most of the year and then something happens, like a terribly cold winter and they let two to three of their electricity bills pile up.” The idea is not to create a sustaining dependence; rather offer a life-preserver and a leg up.
ECHO serves all of Burke and Springfield, and Brantley said their demographics have shifted over the decades: “53 percent of our clientele is Hispanic,” she said, “then African-American, then people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, a lot of that part of the world.”
This year ECHO sent out 1,062 invitations to their eligible client families to receive Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets, 339 of those registered for Thanksgiving and 224 families are already set to receive Christmas baskets.
Fran Eck of Springfield has managed the holiday food basket program for many years. “It's exciting to know that these families are getting something special for the holidays,” she said. “It can be stressful, but I enjoy doing it.”
The food, clothing and household goods are all donated from the Burke and Springfield communities. “They’re so very, very generous, they never not give,” said Brantley. “When we're out of something, I swear you just put it up on the electric sign outside and within 24 hours people are donating. We've just come off a huge local scouting drive, which got over 24,000 pounds of food.”
Businesses also help quite a bit. The Springfield Chamber of Commerce runs a coat drive for ECHO and the week before Thanksgiving, the Cardinal Forest Giant in Springfield donated 18 cases, or 108 individual pumpkin, sweet potato and apple pies. Another major assistance source is the Burke CROP Walk, a faith-based fundraiser for world hunger and crisis relief, which took place Nov. 23 and donates close to $10,000 each year to ECHO.
The sign in front of the ECHO building at 7205 Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield usually lists the food, home or clothing items that are in highest demand for them, but they welcome most donations of time, goods or financial help.