Anew Brandon service center for those who have fallen on hard times is already helping hundreds of people every month.
The Client Service Center at the Emergency Care Help Organization on Parsons Avenue is helping those in need help themselves, said director Stacey Efaw.
Chartered in 1987 as a community mission to feed and clothe the needy, ECHO has helped more than 140,000 Brandon area residents, more than half of them children.
But when the economy tanked and the need grew — ECHO served more than 11,000 clients last year — Efaw felt she was just shipping families off to other agencies without being able to address some of their core problems like unemployment and applications for government assistance.
"We provided food and clothing but people's needs were so much greater," Efaw said. "We were just sending people all over the place but if we can be a one-stop shop we can help so much more."
The new center, which has its grand opening today, focuses on two main issues that drive people to ECHO: unemployment and no access to food stamps.
Center staff now teach clients how to sign up electronically for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps, Medicaid, Healthy Kids insurance and the Temporary Cash Assistance Program.
With the state now requiring online registration for food stamps, the new center is needed for those who don't have access to a computer at home, Efaw said.
Five computer stations at the center — donated by Dr. Chris Russell of Studio Eyes in Valrico, and First Baptist Church of Brandon — also help clients scan job sites and work on a resume.
"We want to set people in the right direction so they can help themselves," said Efaw, who was surprised at just how many ECHO clients have never used a computer. "But this also helps by giving them experience with computers, which is so necessary for most jobs today."
The center opened in May in a former food storage area. Feeding America is now storing that food with the room now transformed into a working office with a reception area, five computer stations and three private meeting desks.
"The clients now have some privacy to discuss their cases," said JoAnn Crawford, a volunteer receptionist at the center who has seen clients break down when they first come to ECHO asking for help. "It also allows us to focus more on the client's real needs," Crawford added.
Refurbished Office Furniture of Tampa donated a $15,000 office makeover for the office after ECHO won the company's online contest, garnering the most "likes" on Facebook. Allegany Franciscan Ministries, a Catholic charity, also donated $10,000. Blue Cross and Blue Shield is also paying for a healthy living class at the center.
The new center, which will include a fulltime social worker, who begins in November, and three Hillsborough Community College interns trained in social work, will cost $60,000 to operate.
It's money well spent, Efaw said.
"With the good we can do it will be well worth it," Efaw said. We've tried to do it for years but it's Brandon taking care of Brandon so I am sure we will find the funding."
Come January, the center plans to offer employment and basic computer classes. Several Brandon area lawyers who want to offer free legal advice are also in discussions with ECHO.
The expansion also has ECHO seeking more volunteers.
"There are a lot of people out there who want to give. We just needed a place for them to do it," Efaw said.
Kevin Brady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.