BRANDON — Robert Leonard experienced a childhood no youngster should ever have to endure. Placed in foster care at an early age, the rejected and troubled kid was admittedly often unruly, a factor that resulted in him being moved from one foster home to another during his boyhood years.
It also played a role in his being a poor student and dropping out of school in 11th grade, lacking a diploma and with few marketable skills.
The now 19-year-old, who has since aged out the foster care system, soon realized he could be easily be doomed to a life of panhandling and homelessness.
Fortunately, Leonard found lodging at Forgotten Angels in Valrico, a charity for former foster kids like him, where he was recently led to take GED classes at the Emergency Care Help Organization in Brandon, a nonprofit group established in 1987.
Since its purpose is to help bridge the gap between crisis and stability for residents throughout South Hillsborough County faced with the loss of jobs and other life-altering difficulties, Leonard quickly learned it was a perfect place for him to be.
ECHO’s services include providing temporary food, clothing and self-help programs to help alleviate the predicaments many area residents confront. Last year, the organization — which in 2018 opened a second location in Riverview — served close to 15,000 “neighbors,” a term executive director Eleanor Saunders prefers to “clients.”
Leonard couldn’t be any more grateful for the assistance the organization has given him.
“If not for ECHO’s GED classes and Miss Carol’s one-on-one help, I could easily be headed down a path of not getting a job or having any kind of a future, except maybe crime and incarceration,” he said.
While all of ECHO’s services are free to those who qualify and much of the food and clothing is donated, there are numerous overhead expenses associated with maintaining the charity at both locations.
In an effort to offset some of its fixed costs as well as increase the number of people it can assist, the organization recently launched the opening of the first-ever ECHO Boutique at 948 W. Brandon Boulevard, thanks to an anonymous donor who’s provided a two-year rent-free lease of the space on the north side of one of the community’s busiest thoroughfares.
The store, open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, features bargain-priced designer women’s fashions, jewelry and other trinkets painstakingly selected from among the multitude of donations made to ECHO.
Shoppers can also find ECHO Handmade items such as leather bracelets, belts, wallets, keychains and handbags skillfully created by former clients and volunteers.
In June, during its first month of operation, the store garnered $5,000 in sales. And according to Saunders, every $10 in items sold will feed a family of five in need.
“The boutique’s success means we’ll have the financial freedom to expand our mission at ECHO,” said Saunders, who also noted her goal is to bank a total of $50,000 in store sales within its first year.
Store co-manager Annmarie Macalusco describes the boutique as a thrifter’s paradise and a place where patrons can purchase inexpensive top-notch goods for an even greater purpose.
“I really love being here because we reach people’s heartstrings,” said Macalusco, a longtime ECHO volunteer.
Customer Sheila Porter, a Seffner resident and also a volunteer at ECHO, makes it a priority to do a lot of her shopping at the new boutique.
“There are high quality items here and it’s so clean and friendly,” she said. “I also like that I’m helping to feed and clothe people who’ve lost their jobs and can’t feed or clothe their kids.”
Kayla Tucker, an unmarried mom of an 8-month-old son and 18-month-old daughter, moved a few months ago from New York to live with her mother in East Tampa’s Clair Mel community. She learned about and received assistance from ECHO in Riverview.
“It was great. I never saw anything like it,” she said.
Retired engineer Brian Goodhead, who’s served on the ECHO Board of Directors for three years, stated that he’s witnessed a teenager living in the nearby woods as well as multiple homeless and single moms and dads turn their lives around as a result of the organization’s help.
“It’s God work for sure,” he said.
ECHO’s board chairman Melissa Haskins agreed, saying she experiences no greater joy than helping people who are struggling get back on their feet.
“It’s just an overwhelming sense of pride to help our fellow neighbors,” said Haskins, “especially when you think it could be anyone of us due to the loss of a job or some other catastrophic occurrence.”