ECHOworks helps those with disabilities find jobs

Editor’s Note: WTOP is a sponsor of the Drive for Charity. When you stop to pay the toll, you’ll receive a WTOP traffic spotter window cling.

LEESBURG, Va. — They bring the mail, and they deliver smiles.

At Inova Loudoun Hospital in Leesburg, Va., the mailroom is run by a team from ECHO — Every Citizen Has Opportunities.

It’s a nonprofit started in 1975 by a group of parents whose kids have disabilities and who wanted their kids to have the chance to get jobs and be part of the community.

Today, ECHO runs 15 job sites around Loudoun and Fairfax counties, providing teams of trained adults with disabilities to do jobs ranging from landscaping to production line work.

ECHO provides transportation and all other support, hoping to give these folks a chance. At the hospital in Leesburg, eight ECHO program participants and their supervisor have become part of the very fabric of the facility.

“I love my job … and I love working here,” says 25-year-old Tim DeNesnera, of Herndon.

DeNesnera, who has autism, talks sports with the staff as he makes his mail rounds with an ECHO team.

“It makes me happy,” he says, admitting that he loves his job even more than the Washington Nationals.

The team distributes mail and packages that come into the central mail room, then they get the outgoing envelopes metered and ready for post office pickup.

And there is always time for a smile, a joke or a hug for Elyus Wallace, their ECHO supervisor.

“They keep me on my toes, and they are teaching me things every day,” says Wallace.

He says the key to the success for the program is to look beyond the disabilities, and see DeNesnera and the others as individuals who can accomplish amazing things.

“They don’t seem disabled to me. They don’t seem like they have any disabilities,” says Wallace. “They seem like superheroes to me in their own special way.”

ECHO serves about 160 people with disabilities. About two- thirds work at various job sites. The rest are in programs at the main ECHO center in Leesburg. One is for individuals with severe disabilities who need special medical attention and are unable to work. The other, called Life, provides training for participants who are mobile but not quite ready for jobs in the community.

“It is all about building each individual’s skills — their life skills and their social skills,” says Karen Russell, ECHO’s marketing director, who has been with the nonprofit through most of its existence.

She has seen it grow since its early days as a sheltered workshop to a partnership providing supported employment in companies and offices across Loudoun and Fairfax counties.

Federal, state and local grants cover most, but not all of ECHO’s costs. For almost 20 years, an annual mixed doubles tennis tournament has been a major source of supplemental money. But a decade ago, money also started pouring in from a rather unusual source.

That’s when the Dulles Greenway launched its annual “Drive for Charity” — a day on which all tolls paid go to five local charities and the Greenway’s own scholarship fund.

Last year, $268,942.85 was collected. The total for this year’s drive, which is being held Thursday, could go even higher.

ECHO plans to use its share of the proceeds to buy another van to transport program participants.

“The Greenway is helping us get people out to the job sites,” says Russell, adding, “it is just an unbelievable gift to have each year.”

She says ECHO wants to place as many people with disabilities as possible. The main problem seems to be convincing local businesses that taking on ECHO workers is a good idea.

Deb Crosley, an Inova liason at the Loudoun Hospital, says it is a win-win. She says the ECHO team works very well, and the hospital staff gets far more than just its mail.

“They do bring sunshine in, even on a rainy day,” says Crosley.

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