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Loudoun Tribune: ECHO: ‘A hand up, not a hand out’

ECHO: ‘A hand up, not a hand out’

About a decade ago, local resident Greg Masters suffered a stroke and other serious injuries as a result of a car accident. While he survived, Masters experienced prolonged difficulty with even the most basic of functions, from speaking to walking.

Masters became aware of the Leesburg nonprofit Every Citizen Has Opportunities (ECHO).

Since 1974, ECHO has trained, found employment and provided transportation and on-site support for people with disabilities, working with numerous area employers or in ECHO’s warehouse and offices near the intersection of SR 7 and US 15 bypass, doing direct mailings and other tasks.

Against his doctor’s orders, through ECHO, Masters pursued a job at the Sterling office of the U.S. Department of Transportation Highway Division where ECHO has a contract for Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division (DOT EFLHD).

Masters now credits ECHO and its job training and support services for the disabled with getting his life back to a productive stage. He has been promoted from mailroom management to fleet management and supply clerk. He even mentors another employee.

“He has integrated seamlessly into the environment,” said Debra Steward, a DOT administrative services manager. “I don’t know what I’d do without him on the team.”

Many of the jobs get funding through the federal AbilityOne program, which dates to the Great Depression era. The program enables nonprofits that serve blind and significantly disabled people to work with the federal government to purchase products and services from their clients. “I love the ECHO staff, and I would be lost without them,” said Alyson Romanish, speaking before the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors during last year’s budget process.

The organization has gotten Romanish work at Wegman’s, the YMCA and her present job with the Good Shepherd Alliance Hope’s Treasures thrift store in Sterling. Romanish helped convince officials to increase county funding for ECHO under the Department of Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services by $600,000, the first increase in nine years.

In fiscal 2016, about $3.6 million of ECHO’s $4.9 million in revenue came from programs paid by the county and Medicaid, according to the organization’s tax return. The organization also raises capital through private sources, including an annual tennis tournament slated this year for June 23 at Ida Lee Park Tennis Center.

ECHO receives broad bipartisan support, though last year some supported more funding than others. “This program is a hand up, it’s not a handout,” said Supervisor Ron Meyer (R-Broad Run). “It’s actually employing people and letting them find a life’s purpose.”

Beginning with five clients and a donated van in 1974, ECHO now has almost 200 adult workers supported by a staff of more than 70. Some 16 locations provide jobs, including Inova Loudoun Hospital, K2M and Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus. A fleet of 37 buses and vans take many individuals to and from work. Some employees require social workers’ aid on the job site, as well.

Workers from ECHO have been so proficient that K2M, which provides spinal technology and products used in medical procedures, hired a participant directly, said David MacDonald, senior vice president of operations and an ECHO board member. Some 14 individuals performs functions like packaging, scanning and indexing there. Janelia employs more than 20 people to primarily work on packaging and ground maintenance.

ECHO recently inked a partnership to employ clients to do ground maintenance, painting and event support at the Fireman’s Field complex in Purcellville. Sports management and facilities firm Play To Win, founded by Loudoun resident Chris Bourassa, and Shaun Alexander Enterprises, a consulting firm run by the Purcellville resident and former NFL player, is managing operations of the complex.

On Feb. 1, ECHO hosted a first-time visit by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) to explain how some 150 clients’ employment could be impacted by conflicting federal guidelines, among other purposes. The Rehabilitation Services Administration, a federal agency under the Department of Education, has interpreted that employment in many community rehabilitation programs utilizing AbilityOne contracts – particularly ones in which clients need ongoing support on the job – would no longer be considered “competitive and integrative employment,” said Jessica Tagai, director of day support services.

Thus, clients who work under AbilityOne contracts in jobs not considered competitive and fully integrated into the company would be out of luck. “The bottom line is those jobs will go away if nothing is done,” said ECHO CEO Paul Donohue Jr.

ECHO officials urged Kaine to contact Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos to ask to ensure the type of services provided by ECHO and other employment organizations continue to qualify for federal funding.

Kaine said he would have staffers review the matter and reach out to the federal agencies. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Kaine, who toured the facilities, including the mailroom and area for medically-fragile clients, added that he was open to asking the Department of Defense to increase its AbilityOne contracting goals and even working with ECHO to employee clients in his local office in Manassas.

ECHO hopes to expand its services and begin a formal job training academy that would go beyond what the organization currently offers, Donohue said. Training would be in areas such as computer technology, customer service and marketing.

ECHO staff with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. (Courtesy of ECHO)

ECHO: ‘A hand up, not a hand out’

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