Last year was historic and eventful for the El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO). And not just because of COVID-19.
On top of managing the pandemic, the 20-year-old Atascadero nonprofit also opened a new shelter in Paso Robles—the city's first.
That doubled ECHO's bed total while expanding much-needed homeless services in North County.
"A year ago, we had 50 beds and a handful of staff. And now we have 120 beds, three shelters, and over 20 staff. It's been an unprecedented year," ECHO CEO Wendy Lewis told New Times.
But with three shelters to run—its original residency program in Atascadero, a winter warming center in the Atascadero Community Church, and the new Paso shelter in a former Motel 6—ECHO now needs more volunteers than ever to sustain its mission.
Lewis said she has as many as 500 volunteer slots to fill each month—and she's asking for the community's help, especially during the rough months of winter.
"It's a pretty daunting thing to do," Lewis said of lining up volunteers, "but the community always steps up when we ask. Volunteers have always been the cornerstone of what we do. We have limited staffing, so volunteers really make our work possible."
SLO County residents have many ways to help out at ECHO—there are a variety of roles and most require just a few hours of commitment, Lewis said.
The jobs range from helping with nightly resident check-ins, to serving dinner, to providing to-go style meals, to helping with its shower program. ECHO currently has an urgent need for more overnight chaperones at its Atascadero shelter.
- Photo Courtesy Of Wendy Lewis
- CHIPPING IN El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) volunteer Wendy Johnson serves dinner to clients in Atascadero on Jan. 7. ECHO is looking for more community volunteers to help with its expansion to Paso Robles.
"We try to tailor our need with what the volunteer is seeking," Lewis explained. "Volunteers can choose what feels most comfortable, whether that be direct interaction with others or ancillary support roles."
Joining ECHO's volunteer force is endlessly rewarding, according to Atascadero resident Wendy Johnson. Johnson said she's served on an ECHO "meal team" for about a decade, and the experience has been eye-opening and gratifying.
"What I really like about volunteering here is getting to know the people," Johnson told New Times by phone before serving dinner at ECHO on Jan. 7. "You just find out these are real people. Homelessness is not something that just targets certain types of demographics."
Johnson said that helping out at ECHO shattered all her pre-conceived notions about homelessness. She said she's met people from all walks of life and circumstances: like a widow who, after losing her husband, lost her house in a fire; or a man who recently lost his job due to COVID-19.
She said the experience helped her realize that "we are not immune" to homelessness.
"It could happen to anybody," she said. "People don't realize how fortunate we are to have a place to live. It's helped me to see the homeless population in a different light."
These lessons and connections are what bring Johnson back to volunteer on a regular basis. While the pandemic has sidelined a number of ECHO's older and more vulnerable volunteers, it hasn't deterred Johnson, who said the nonprofit is going above and beyond to ensure everyone's safety—like requiring mask-wearing and limiting indoor contact, among other measures.
"There's never been a time I didn't feel safe here at ECHO," Johnson said.
With ECHO now expanding to provide more beds and services to the North County community, Johnson encouraged more locals to get involved. She emphasized that volunteering doesn't have to be a huge commitment.
"You can volunteer almost as little or as often as you want," she said. "The meal assembly is two hours. You could do two hours once a week, a few days a week, or once a month."
Lewis, ECHO's CEO, said that most volunteers who come in feeling apprehensive about the homeless community have a quick change of heart once they're there.
"Once they experienced it and are a part of it, it changes their mindset," Lewis said. "They get to see—it's just people who have experienced trauma or a life-changing event that's led them into a situation where now you get to be part of supporting them back into housing."
According to Johnson, that positive exchange is hard to walk away from.
"I know once people start doing it, it's so rewarding, you just want to come back," Johnson said. "It opens the hearts of a lot of people." Δ
Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.