Ernest Hooper: Cue the tears and the cheers at this nonprofit's anniversary

Bank of America's Bill Goede hands $200,000 to ECHO's Eleanor Saunders and Sharmaine Burr to help the nonprofit expand. Ernest Hooper   |   Times
Bank of America's Bill Goede hands $200,000 to ECHO's Eleanor Saunders and Sharmaine Burr to help the nonprofit expand.Ernest Hooper | Times
Published October 7 2017

Some tears were shed in Brandon on Thursday night.

Tears of joy.

Tears of faith.

Tears of recognition.

Tears for a bigger future that will be brighter than its successful present.

ECHO of Brandon, the community's flagship nonprofit and an organization every Hillsborough County resident needs to know more about, celebrated its 30th anniversary in front of its strip-mall headquarters on Parsons Avenue.

Chamber of Commerce members, volunteers, elected officials and supporters gathered under a white tent in the parking lot to reflect on how one newspaper story and one wife's request mushroomed into an agency that's helped nearly 250,000 people with emergency food and clothing, job and life skills training, counseling and, honestly, a lot of love.

"When you talk about our staff, they just don't come to work," said ECHO executive director Eleanor Saunders. "They fulfill their calling. That makes all the difference."

The festive atmosphere shined through overcast skies, but an even brighter infusion warmed the evening. Saunders shared the news that ECHO will soon expand to the SouthShore area and then explained the nonprofit was getting a boost.

Bill Goede, the Tampa Bay market president for Bank of America, stepped forward with one of those giant checks for $200,000.

Cue the cheers. Cue the tears.

"It means expansion, it means helping more people and it gives us the ability to go to a very underserved area," Saunders said with a smile so large it must have hurt her cheeks.

A quarter of all the people ECHO serves makes the relatively long drive from communities like Riverview, Gibsonton and Progress Village to its location in North Brandon. The expanded spot — ECHO will announce the details after it officially signs the lease later this month — will allow it to expand to a part of the county that's growing both in people and in need.

For 14 years, Bank of America has watched its Neighborhood Builders grant help launch such ambitious projects. ECHO is the 38th Tampa Bay nonprofit to receive the grant, which is determined by a volunteer committee made up of previous winners and community leaders, including this columnist.

Since the program's inception in 2004, Bank of America has invested $7.6 million in the community, giving groups the opportunity to bring about transformative changes for organizations.

Goede said he's confident it will do the same for ECHO.

"We know they can deliver," Goede said. "We know they do an amazing job with the resources they have. And with the passion they have, they will put this $200,000 to amazing use."

What ECHO needs in the future is a bridge to the larger Hillsborough County community. For so long, some people in Tampa have thought of East Hillsborough as "somewhere out there." But if it were incorporated, Greater Brandon would rank as one of Florida's 10 largest cities — likely larger than Tampa.

Nearly every Tampa company draws employees from the area, so in essence, ECHO's efforts strengthen the community where its workers live and play. It needs to be seen as a key cog in the social service network, instead of a cute little nonprofit.

Its roots remain grounded in its passion and grass roots appeal. At Thursday's event was Carol Craft, who encouraged her late husband, Julian, to rally for the once simple food pantry when it was on the verge of collapse in 1987. Julian pulled together other community pioneers — people like Vince Ferraro, who choked back his emotions Thursday after 30 years on the board — and the rest is history.

Carol Craft could only marvel at the progress. And in the years to come, with the right support, I think we'll marvel even more.

That's all I'm saying.