BRANDON, Fla. — Eleanor Saunders has a heart for her community. In her words, "the need is great."
“We’ve literally had people spend the night in our parking lot in their cars and then walk in at 8:30 for emergency food,” she said.
For more than four years, Saunders has served as the executive director of ECHO, a non-profit based in Brandon which stands for Emergency Care Help Organization. For 32 years, it has strived to help people in need find clothing, food and job opportunities.
Community support has been monumental, and Saunders noticed she had two excess resources: donated clothing and unemployed people. Her solution led to establishing ECHO Handmade.
“This is an opportunity to help people in crisis,” Madonna Jones said as she threaded beads in the back room of the newly-opened ECHO Boutique. She and a half-dozen other women gather every Wednesday morning in a tiny back room to create sell-able accessories from excess clothing donations.
ECHO Handmade is a successful solution to Saunders’ excess clothing conundrum. Donated clothes are re-purposed into fashionable accessories like zipper pouches, handbags and shoulder bags. Some utilize men’s neckties as shoulder straps.
The money generated from accessory sales is pumped back into the ECHO non-profit, which last year served more than 15,000 people in the community.
“It is amazing,” Saunders said. “We have leather totes, we have leather cross-body bags, we do keychains, garden markers, wristlets, zipper bags and stretchy bracelets out of broken jewelry.”
Perhaps no one in the backroom of the boutique understands the importance of the mission more than Roslyn Johnson. She and her sister were living in a hotel room after moving to Florida from Louisiana a few years ago.
Johnson showed up to ECHO looking for help. She was the recipient of food at her greatest time of need.
“The people (here) are so joyous to be around,” Johnson said as she skillfully worked a piece of colorful fabric under the needle of her sewing machine.
The old shirt would eventually become the lining of a new leather shoulder bag.
“It’s very special," she said.
Johnson, who use to be homeless, is now an ‘artisan’ with ECHO Handmade. Her example of perseverance and poise in the face of trouble is the story ECHO strives to share.
She once needed assistance by ECHO. Now, she’s paid 25 percent of the retail price for each accessory she stitches.
“She’s amazing and she’s creative and she’s brilliant,” Saunders said.
In 2018, ECHO had $1.6 million worth of clothing items donated for redistribution. Every family member who comes looking for assistance receives enough clothing for seven days.
Even with all the donations going out, there is still plenty remaining for the ECHO Handmade operation. Hand and shoulder bags sell for $25-$45 typically and are all one-of-a-kind.
For Johnson, the opportunity to impact others who are currently in a situation she lived through is worth every hour spent in the cramped back room of the boutique.
“We were trying to find any help possible,” she said. “When we came to ECHO, we just never left.
“It means a whole lot. It really does," she said.
In addition to the emergency food and clothing donations, ECHO also offers job training programs and opportunities for people to earn a GED. Anyone who graduates from the GED program gets a gift card for $20-$40 to “shop” for back-to-work clothes at the Brandon Boutique.
In October 2018, ECHO opened a second facility in Riverview. The ECHO Boutique opened June 6 in Brandon.
100% of ECHO proceeds go to fight hunger in Hillsborough County by directly funding ECHO's food pantry and community development efforts.
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