Fifty years after getting its start as a small food pantry, Everyone Cooperating to Help Others, better known as ECHO, continues to grow and help the community.
Executive Director Karen Lisser said the organization helps about 3,600 households and 14,000 people annually. Half of the households have a single parent, and 65 percent have children.
ECHO supplied more than 1.5 million pounds of food to the community in 2018. The food is intended for Janesville residents, but when too much is donated, the organization shares it with area food pantries and people in need.
“Just seeing the community support for our services and seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they leave here feeling like they have more hope, that’s my favorite part,” Lisser said.
ECHO was created after members of St. Mary Catholic Church noticed a need for a food pantry in 1969. The operation expanded to include a small clothing center at another local church before the religious groups realized the problem was bigger than they thought.
“They soon realized that this issue was bigger than what they could do in the churches,” Lisser said.
The churches came together in a non-denominational cause, and by 1975 ECHO had a building for the food pantry on Dodge Street. It moved into a new building in 2002.
The organization takes pride in the progress it has made toward helping the homeless and those in need, Lisser said.
“I really enjoy seeing the differences we’re making in our clients’ and our volunteers’ lives,” Assistant Director Jessica Locher said.
When Lisser started working for ECHO in 1995, she realized housing was an even bigger issue surrounding locals needing food and clothing.
ECHO had minor rent assistance programs before 1995, but after Lisser joined the group, it began looking at other options, such as donations and government grants.
ECHO now helps clients in Rock and Walworth counties through its rent assistance program.
“I was like, ‘Wait a minute, there are so many homeless people and others who need rent assistance,’” she said.
The group began by supplying clients close to eviction with a payment of one month’s rent. The program has since grown. Although some grants have specific requirements, ECHO donates funds to those who might need extra assistance.
One example is the rapid re-housing program, which is geared toward helping people out of homelessness.
“We get them out of homelessness and into an apartment, and we pay multiple months’ rent while doing case management to stabilize their situation,” Lisser said.
The group has other housing projects in the works. While ECHO is proud of the work that’s been done in 50 years, it plans to work even harder on housing in the future, Locher said.
“We really want to keep focusing on our housing program moving forward,” Locher said. “Taking people who are on the streets or in shelters and getting them into a stable house is just amazing.”