NORTH COUNTY — On Saturday, Jun. 19, at the El Camino Homeless Shelter in Atascadero, located at 6370 Atascadero Ave, a few key individuals joined together to witness a special award being presented to the organization. 

El Camino Homeless Organization’s (ECHO) Executive Director Wendy Lewis, alongside Kandy Noel, ECHO’s Board Chair, and Amy Freeman, board member, was awarded the 2021 California Nonprofit of the Year by Senator John Laird. 

“We are deeply humbled to be recognized by Senator John Laird as a 2021 Nonprofit of the Year,” Lewis shared as she accepted the award. 

Getting through this together, Atascadero

Laird represents District 17 of the California State Senate, which includes Santa Cruz and San Luis Obispo Counties, as well as parts of Monterey and Santa Clara Counties. 

“Out of all the nonprofits, ECHO was an easy choice, and it is wonderful to be here in San Luis Obispo County,” Senator Laird explained. 

Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno and Councilmember Susan Funk were also present.

“To pick ECHO as the nonprofit of the year from the entire district which encompasses multiple counties says a lot about ECHO,” Mayor Moreno stated. “There are so many good nonprofits from which to choose, and we here, I think, I can be biased, certainly, and think they do such a wonderful job, but I think we have really seen the growth in ECHO in the last several years, the investment from Must! Charities, how they have expended not just here in Atascadero but to Paso also here with the warming center…not at all surprised that they won nonprofit of the year.”

Pictured right to left: Atascadero Mayor Heather Moreno, ECHO Executive Director, CEO Wendy Lewis, California Senator John Laird, Atascadero City Councilmember Susan Funk. Photos by Hayley Mattson

Traditionally, honorees and legislators are invited to a celebratory luncheon on California Nonprofits Day. This year, like 2020, the luncheon was canceled in response to pandemic restrictions. 

Lewis shared, “It is pretty amazing to be on someone at that levels radar, out of the thousands of nonprofits in his region he could have chosen, to select ECHO and really highlight the work we have been doing and highlight the growth we have had and really help bring awareness to our work to help sustain us…we are super excited.” 

Since 2001 ECHO’s mission is to empower people in San Luis Obispo County to make positive change by providing food, shelter, and supportive services. Currently, ECHO operates three facilities in North County that each provides meals and a safe and secure overnight shelter to meet the immediate needs of families and individuals in the community who are facing hunger and homelessness.

“I think what is so special about this is addressing homelessness is a whole community effort…” Councilmember Funk said. “…we are so proud of ECHO’s leadership in bringing the whole community together both here and in Paso Robles; ECHO also serves people from around the county when this is the right space for them and gives people that period of time to get their lives back together again so that they can rejoin the house community and enjoy the things the rest of us all take for granted…it is hard work.”

ECHO’s residents are provided individual case management services to assist them with securing a job and finding permanent and sustainable housing. While staying at ECHO, residents are taught life skills for employment, financial literacy, health care management, and parenting.

For a little over six months, ECHO has been in full swing in Paso Robles, now offering the same services as ECHO Atascadero.  

Pictured from left to right: Kandy Noel, ECHO Board Chair, Wendy Lewis, ECHO President/CEO; Senator John Laird, ECHO Board Member Amy Freeman, ECHO Board. Photo by Hayley Mattson

“At Paso Robles ECHO, we are a full service just kinda like we are here in Atascadero, so within our six months, we have been able to have a meal program that operates in the evening just like it does here in Atascadero, we have services like case management, financial literacy, medical support, behavioral health support, we are really trying to bring those life-changing resources that really help get people back into housing. In our first six months up there [Paso Robles], we have almost helped 40 individuals and families find permanent housing going from no options six months before that. So it has been a big challenge, and I am so proud of our team for stepping up and doing the right thing and doing it so fast. We are full almost every night, and with here, we have such a great resource, but there is more need out there.”  

Senator Laird expressed that one of the key factors in choosing ECHO as the nonprofit of the year was due to the organization not only sustaining during a pandemic but also expanding. 

Lewis explained, “[Senator Laird] shared that during a pandemic that he saw us not only maintaining what we did but actual to expand our services and thought that was just pretty awe-inspiring that here we [ECHO] during a pandemic where a lot of folks were just trying to stay steady, we said no, there is work that needs to be done, and there are people that are really suffering, so let’s step up and let’s really expand and in that time frame we opened a second shelter in Paso Robles, and we operated an emergency winter shelter here in Atascadero so not just staying kinda steady but really growing to meet that critical need out there.” 

All who attended the special recognition on Saturday shared the same sentiment; for a nonprofit not only to thrive during unprecedented times says a lot about the organization, but it also says a lot about the community as well. 

Senator Laird shared what impressed him about ECHO was, “Part of it was the community support, I know no other homeless shelter in a district that is near a school, in a residential neighborhood that has the mayor volunteer regularly, that just doesn’t happen.” 

After the presentation, Lewis expressed her deep appreciation, “We just want to thank Senator Laird as well as all of our community supporters who have made us the organization that we are today.” 

For more information, please visit our website at echoshelter.org.