This article ran in Moultrie News on March 2, 2021.
ECCO opens doors to a better life
It’s called “the entrance to grace and dignity.” East Cooper Community Outreach’s front door opens into a special place where everyone, no matter their situation in life, is treated with respect. It is a place where listening and offering assistance are considered the keys to helping others live a better life.
Don Squires, ECCO’s director of development and marketing, explained, “We have people that open that door and those first couple steps are the hardest steps they’ve ever taken in their lives because they have to walk in here and ask for help.”
“We want to make sure when people come into this building that we’re going to be walking with them in this journey of financial hardship,” he said.
Squires said they focus on three areas: basic needs, health services and empowerment. He emphasized that ECCO’s goal is not to be simply a quick “hand-out service.” Rather they want to provide practical help that improves lives or helps people get back on their feet, depending on their needs.
Squires said that for some people their journey is pretty short, but others require long-term assistance. “About 52 percent of the people we serve are senior citizens, are 70 plus, and are now living on social security benefits. They’re living on their retirement and that maxes out. You can’t really live in Mount Pleasant on social security benefits anymore. We’re just helping them live out the rest of their life because they can’t afford to live in the place they’ve lived their entire lives.”
The organization began as an emergency relief effort back in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo and moved into its present location in 2003. It has a long history in the area and a strong reputation. They work off a yearly budget of about $1.4 million. Most of the money they receive is from private donations, about 85 percent. “Only about 7 percent of our money comes from federal dollars,” Squires said.
“Due to the pandemic we’ve been very blessed to not be one of the nonprofits that’s struggling to make ends meet. We have a strong foundation here. We’ve been here for a long time and have been here through all the disasters, so when the pandemic hit us it was kind of like, this is what we do. We know how to adapt to that and we have people who have been here for a long time and board members who have been supporting us for a long time. We have volunteers at our base here who have been here since the very first day it opened,” he said.
One area that has been impacted by the coronavirus is ECCO’s volunteer force which has been halved. A large number of the volunteers are over 60 years of age and most work on a weekly schedule, so rather than 225 volunteers every week they are working with a staff of about 125.
ECCO, located at 1145 Six Mile Road, off Highway 17, has a welcoming front lobby with a dental clinic on one side and a medical clinic toward the back. There are small rooms for counseling and a large warehouse where food distribution is handled. Because of COVID-19, they have fewer people coming in and out and are managing their clients differently to maintain a safe environment.
Their dental clinic is a source of special pride. With four dental treatment rooms and a new x-ray machine, the clinic provides local uninsured residents a place for dental care. Volunteer dentists from the MUSC Dental School provide preventative care, such as cleanings, fillings, and partial dentures, three days a week. Additionally, two nights are dedicated to an extraction clinic. Squires said the extraction clinic is open to any uninsured person in the state. “People drive in from Myrtle Beach, from Hilton Head, because they have a toothache and need a tooth pulled. Now it’s by appointment only because of the pandemic,” Squires said, adding they had provided $780,000 worth of free dental work so far.
The need for food, of course, is often at the heart of financial instability. At ECCO they are proud to be the first food pantry in South Carolina to have client choice orders, in which clients can choose food options that work best for their family. The pandemic recently caused ECCO to switch to prepacked groceries and a drive-through system. However, they plan on moving back to client choice on March 1.
“We think there is a lot of pride and dignity that is attached to what you eat. We have grandparents, because of the way the DSS system is working now, who have custody of kids. If they come and get a food order and it’s filled with Brussel sprouts and none of the kids eat Brussel sprouts how is that helping anyone? We also have people who come in with severe health issues,” Squires explained.
Most of the food comes from local food drives, from the Lowcountry Food Bank, and from retail partner stores, such as Costco, Walmart, Harris Teeter, Lowes, Aldi, Publix, Chick-fil-A North, and Nothing Bundt Cakes. Delivery driver Darnell Thompson, visits local grocery stores to pick up food donations. He fills up the truck two or three times every day. Prior to the pandemic, ECCO served 225 families each month. Now, however, the numbers are much higher, with one month reaching 900 families. Squires said they have stabilized at about 600 now.
There are walk-in refrigerators for fresh meat, produce, and prepared foods along with baked goods from retail stores. ECCO wants clients to have healthy, fresh foods, not just canned items. “Health is a huge issue for us,” Squires said. They also provide important items such as diapers, shampoo, cleaning supplies and other essentials.
ECCO is launching a program in March called “SmartChoice” which was completely funded for the first year through the Daniel Island Community Fund. Squires described it as “an inventory system so that when stuff comes in we will not only weigh it but scan it into the system and inventory the proper way. So when people ask ‘how much food did you give out?’ I’ll be able to say ‘we gave out 4,000 pounds of meat, or 400 cans of green beans’ It’s going to be big for us. On the fundraising side, it’s going to be very big for reporting to donors. Plus, it allows us to forecast future needs.”
He said it will also help clients who will receive a user name and a password so they can to do their food orders from their phone, tablet or computer. And those who don’t have the technology or access to the Internet will be able to call in their orders or come to the ECCO office and go through their food order with a volunteer. “Clients will be excited to get to choose their food again,” Squires said.
ECCO also provides two free medical clinics at their office geared for uninsured adults with health needs, through their partnership with MUSC and Roper Saint Francis Healthcare. ECCO’s Partners in Health Care Clinic is a daytime clinic open two days a week by appointment that focuses on chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension, and the ECCO C.A.R.E.S. clinic which offers such things as primary care, immunizations, and women’s health for uninsured adults two nights a week by appointment. “We have people where this is their medical home, they don’t just come here for emergencies. These are their doctors,” said Squires adding that this is an area ECCO would like to expand and grow.
There’s a lot going on at East Cooper Community Outreach, but their primary goal is clear. To make a real difference. ECCO seeks to “help people really climb out of poverty and not just put Band-Aids on things,” Squires said.