It started out with three Harvest Assembly of God families in Lakeland, Florida, interested in becoming foster parents. As they learned about fostering children, they became acutely aware that children being removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect had immediate needs — many times for infant and toddler children, that immediate need meant clean diapers.
“We kind of all found each other in church — families going into foster care,” explains Jennifer Stirk. “As we began discussing foster care, we began to wonder if other families in the church might be interested in forming a support group or might be willing to donate to help with foster care.”
The couples went to lead pastor Keith Conley, who founded the church, to ask about the church helping to start the ministry to foster families. As Stirk recalls, he immediately lent his full support to the idea.
On Mother’s Day 2012, the new support group, which developed into ECHO (Everyday Christians Helping Orphans) Ministries, held its first diaper drive. Nearly 800 new diapers were donated.
But when they brought the diapers to the local licensing agency so they could distribute the diapers as needed, they were shocked to learn the agency had no place to put the donation.
“The staff was wonderful, but we had to stack the diapers by the staff members’ desks because they didn’t have a place to store them,” Stirk says. “And people were now calling us with other items to donate, such as cribs, strollers, clothing, but the agency didn’t have anything set up to receive donations. So, we said, ‘Ok, I guess we’ll do this then.’”
For the next two years, the families received donated items and placed them out on tables for distribution. Any foster families that came to the support group meetings and needed items available on the tables, were welcomed to take them.
As God found the group faithful to give, He began to bless them. First, a woman from K-Ville Assembly of God in the neighboring city of Auburndale, mentioned her church had a building that could be used as a shop for the donated items.
“We moved all the donated goods from our garages — which our husbands were very happy about — into a 1,300-square-foot building,” Stirk says. “That became our first ECHO shop and from there we just grew!” The ministry is currently on its way to becoming a 501(c)(3) for tax purposes.
Currently, ECHO, which is now led by Jennifer and her husband, Justin, has a shop in Auburndale and another in Bowling Green. A third shop in Avon Park was recently closed as it is transitioning to a larger location at Assembly Church in Sebring. Harvest maintains the main donation warehouse, a 2,000-square-foot facility located just down the street from the church.
Conley says that the ministry has helped make the church, which runs about 600 in attendance, known throughout the community and county as people look for help. He notes that just recently ECHO sent 43 large totes of clothing to Honduras to distribute to victims of the hurricane that struck there earlier this year.
“We also learned that when children are taken from homes, that the caregiver has to have a bed for each child, and when that wasn’t available, siblings were being split up,” Conley says. “So we created a bunkbed kit that caregivers can use to help keep siblings together.”
The ministry, which currently has about 45 volunteers from a variety of churches, collects new and lightly used items for children ages “crib to college.” Foster families can visit the shops and select what they need at no charge. Currently, the greatest needs are shoes and clothing for boys of all ages.
“Girls buy lots of clothes [that can later be donated in good condition],” Stirk explains, and adds with a laugh, “boys just wear them out.”
Conley says that one — among many — of the great things that has come from ECHO is an interaction and cooperation between churches, working together to meet a need.
“We’ve enjoyed partnering with our sister churches, we’ve enjoyed the ability to do outreach through ECHO and for ECHO to be involved in the outreaches we do in our church – it’s a beautiful partnership . . . and every time a new church comes in, we love it,” he says. “We want to keep getting people involved and making a difference in these kids’ lives.”
The testimonies of how the ministry has impacted lives within and outside of the church are too numerous to track, Jennifer Stirk says, but God has used the ministry for more than meeting physical needs. She shares how God recently used ECHO to draw two foster sisters to Him simply by one of them helping paint a scene in one of the ministry locations, which forged a connection between her and her foster mom. This led to the young teen and her sister becoming volunteers in the church nursery and ultimately to both girls dedicating their lives to Christ and being baptized.
Prior to COVID, the ministry was serving 80 to 90 kids every week, but since the pandemic, the number has dropped to about 50 to 60 kids and the ministry is only open three times a month.
“Beginning in January, we’re planning on opening back up every week,” Stirk says. “We’re also planning to open two new shops and our first Hope House.”
The Hope House is a transition house. When a child is removed from a home, authorities have 23 hours to place that child with a caregiver. During that time, the child could be sitting in an office, in the back of a car, or be in some other uncomfortable environment as authorities work to find a willing and qualified caregiver.
“The Hope House will provide children with warm meals, clothing, toys, a safe environment, and caring Christian people during those highly stressful transitional hours,” Stirk says. “We’re working with the police and local licensing agency on this.”
When asked if she had been made aware of an increase in child abuse or neglect during the pandemic, creating a greater need, Stirk’s response was revealing.
“Usually reports of child abuse or neglect come from coaches, teachers, daycare workers – the frontliners are the ones who typically spot the abuse,” she states. “They are the ones helping to save kids’ lives. But when everything was closed down, the number of reports went down. Now that things are opening up, the numbers are climbing.”
“ECHO is growing,” Conley observes. “In fact, it’s growing so quickly, I just had a conversation to today that we’re going to have to get a larger warehouse — that’s on the horizon for sure.”
Stirk notes that through the years, God has provided for all the ministry’s needs, bringing the right people and resources together at just the right time and has no doubts that God’s provision will continue.