Ask Eleanor Saunders about her work at Brandon's Emergency Care Help Organization, and she's quick to credit the non-profit's 107 weekly volunteers.
The ECHO board, however, has nothing but high praise for its center director. It nominated Saunders for the Brandon Rotary '86 Club's Most Valuable Employee award. Saunders, 39, received the honor last month.
Over meals at the Brunchery, we talked about ECHO, how "God wired her" to help the hurting, and the challenge of balancing work, motherhood and her role as wife of Bay Life Church pastor Mark Saunders.
Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: How has the economy affected the number of clients that request ECHO's services?
ELEANOR: In the last three years, we went to 7,000 to 8,000, and last year we saw more than 10,000. We're seeing a lot more evictions and foreclosures, and job loss, especially in the trades. Pool guys, electricians, plumbers, painters. Receptionists, a lot of the administrative type people. If worse came to worst, they could always go waitress, but that's not there anymore. You can hardly get into McDonald's or Wal-Mart. I think that's why we see the increase. It's people who have never, ever asked for help before. It kills you.
How do you deal with the emotion of the job?
I feel like I was made to do this, so that makes a huge difference. I pray a lot, and I have really set boundaries. I leave it all out on the field and do as much as I can while I'm there. But I try very hard not to take it home. If not, you'll take it home with you, and it'll eat at you because I meet people like me every day. I look across the desk and think, "That could be me."
Is there something about your upbringing that has made you "wired" for this work?
My mom would have my brother and I take Kool-Aid out to the trash men on hot days. I think that influenced me a lot. I'm always drawn to the underdog and the hurting. I got saved when I was 16 and in high school, I had to pick a career and go shadow somebody for a day. I went to a rescue mission downtown in Indianapolis. I walked in there and it was like I had come home: 'I have found my people. They are here.'
How do you balance work, motherhood and being the wife of a pastor?
I try to attend as many of (Mark's functions) as I can. I try to, whatever I'm in, to live in the moment and do what I can there. But when it's done, it's done. And these are really my mom years. I'm not out to change the world. I have three kids, and they're my priority.
What's the role of the pastor's wife at Bay Life?
Oh man. Everybody has an idea of what they want their pastor's wife to be. Some people love it that I wear jeans on Sunday. Some people can't stand it, that I would have the audacity to wear jeans on Sunday. You just have to step back and say, 'Lord, what do you want from my life? What's true? What do you want me to do here?' And then you just have to live for Him. It's easy to get in that trap of trying to be all things to all people, and you can't do it.
So you're not the co-pastor?
Some churches see their pastor's wife as co-pastor. We had a lot of that when we first moved here. I had an employee come to our house and resign to me. I was barefoot, playing outside with the kids. We had to make those delineations really fast. Mark said, 'Eleanor is not a co-pastor with me. Eleanor is a fellow believer, and she's going to use her spiritual gifts in the community.' He makes it so much easier for me. He's totally and completely supportive of me, so it's awesome.
What do you find rewarding about working at ECHO?
I'm feel like I'm making a difference in my own community. We do a lot of foreign missions, and I love that. But here are my neighbors, and my kids' parents sometimes that really need help, and we get to help them. That's rewarding and just seeing how Brandon takes care of its own. I have little old ladies and guys come in: 'Here's a check for $50. Here's a check for $30. I went to Publix and did a buy-one, get-one-free. Here's all my free stuff.' That happens on a daily basis. I love it here.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
As demand rises, ECHO strives for ways to expand and would like to open a second location in the Riverview/Gibsonton area. Eleanor says she was "in heaven" doing urban ministry work while attending Chicago's Moody Bible College, where she met Mark. She took the "L" all around Chicago and once worked in a transition home for women coming out of prostitution. Only once did she get unnerved, when she had to meet a colleague at night in a church. So, she put on her overcoat, flipped up her hood and sang hymns while walking to the church. When people asked her mom if she was worried for her daughter, her mom replied, "The safest place for Eleanor to be is in God's will."