Thirty years ago one of the strongest and most devastating hurricanes hit the coast of South Carolina. Of all the things that rose out of the storm, there is one in particular that continues to impact the East Cooper community on a daily basis.

When Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston on Sept. 21 1989 as a Category 4 storm, the tragedies that the area faced were horrific. Monsignor James Carter was the newly appointed priest at Christ Our King Catholic Church (COK) in Mount Pleasant. He’d only been in town for two months when the storm arrived and decided he would stay.

“I stayed because I was concerned that there were going to be people that needed help, spiritual help. There was one woman that was dying and we were able to minister to her in spite of the hurricane,” Carter recalled. “Then the hurricane came and we at Christ Our King were some of the first to respond.”

He says he remembers the horrendous damage from Hugo. Carter and the others staying at the church walked outside when the eye of the hurricane passed overhead. They looked around to see huge oak trees down and the next day they went to see the Ben Sawyer Bridge had fallen off its axis.

The church itself twisted in the storm sending cracks along the sides of the buildings. Carter worked with parishioners to file insurance claims and repair the campus. But, then they turned their attention outside of their church and into the community. Carter and members of the COK parish collected and distributed clothing, food and other supplies from their church’s gymnasium.

Within a short amount of time operating out of the gym, Carter invited churches of all denominations to join their mission to address the needs of the community. A parishioner assisted them in finding a space and they moved into the old Jabbers Market, a vacant supermarket building that sat where The Boulevard apartments are currently located on Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant. Here, they established an organized distribution center for people to come receive necessities.

Carter remembers people forming long lines at the Jabbers Market, so they kept providing. He recalls mothers carrying babies in the lines and even some business owners in the strip mall that objected to their clientele, but that didn’t stop them from assisting those in need.

“What I realized at that point right after when I went around looking, I saw there were people that lived here without water and lights. But not just because of Hugo; they just never had it,” Carter said. “We realized it couldn’t be temporary when we saw this. That spurred us on to make this something that was long lasting.”

While in the Jabbers Market location, their efforts grew into a nonprofit. Carter says he remembers one day while on a jog from Mount Pleasant to Sullivan’s Island the idea of the fitting name popped into his head. He thought about ECHO, a former church outreach program in North Charleston and then realized East Cooper Community Outreach (ECCO) would be a perfect name for what they were doing. Carter became the chief operating officer for ECCO.

“It was easy to determine needs after Hugo because we knew precisely what they needed. Later on as ECCO developed, they needed other things. The needs expanded from food and clothing to how do we cook, what food do we eat and how do we extend our money,” Carter said.

Carter said they knew they would have to relocate from the market and the Mount Pleasant mayor at the time, Dick Jones, was also a member of the COK parish. He told ECCO he’d help them find somewhere to move. But they hadn’t found a new location by the time they got kicked out of the Jabbers Market, so they continued their operations temporarily out of the back of a truck.

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A timeline of East Cooper Community Outreach’s building locations.

Then, in 1990, Jones helped them find a building located on North Lansing Drive in Mount Pleasant. A famous Southern Evangelist, Billy Graham, donated two trailers for ECCO to utilize at this location. Carter said he’d always wanted to start a medical clinic, but St. Andrews had one so he decided to have a dental clinic instead in one of the trailers. Carter said they got dental equipment from the state and that a Dr. John Howard, a member of the COK parish and dentist, was instrumental in organizing and getting the equipment they needed.

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East Cooper Community Outreach formerly had one operation chair in it's dental clinic at North Lansing Road. Now they have four fully operational dental clinics and a panoramic X-ray machine. 

Carter said ECCO used the second trailer for temporary housing but it got so abused that they had to do away with it.

“Here is where we started programs, other than just distribution of food, clothes and things like that,” Carter said.

ECCO’s current exectutive director, Stephanie Kelley, explained this is when the nonprofit started to look at how they could help improve their client’s quality of life and financial stability. ECCO stayed in the same building with the trailers for 13 years.

“I think that (Hugo) was the catalyst that brought our attention to the needs in the community,” Carter shared.

Kelley agreed with Carter and said that’s repeated in many places when storms; such as when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and now Hurricane Dorian devastating the Bahamas.

“The sad part is sometimes you do need the blinders to be blown off. You can drive through Mount Pleasant and everything looks like it’s great but there are people who are suffering, even in our community,” Kelley said.

In 2003, ECCO outgrew its location and moved into their current building at 1145 Six Mile Road in Mount Pleasant. Carter said the property cost $335,000 and a parishioner donated those funds in thanks to him helping her with spiritual counseling. Carter said another close friend passed away, leaving him $750,000 for ECCO. Catholic Charities USA also gave ECCO grants. Carter sold the old location to the bank and put those funds towards the new building. The Diocese of Charleston owns the land, but ECCO built the building that still exists at this location. Kelley explained this was to ensure the Diocese would always be invested in the nonprofit.

Carter said because of these contributions, ECCO purchased state of the art dental equipment for their new building. ECCO expanded their building once in 2008 and has grown into a major non-profit operation aiding the community’s needs for the last 30 years.

“The biggest reason people come through our door is the same reason people came to Christ Our King back in ‘89 and then to Jabbers Market. It’s for the food and then once we get them here the thought is if you’re having trouble putting food on the table, you might be struggling to get medical care, to take care of your dental health and be able to benefit from some of the other programs that we’re doing,” Kelley said.

Carter said that the nonprofit would not be where it is today without the generous support from the community and volunteers. Kelley said right after the storm they provided basic needs and now they’ve expanded to provide other important resources for their patients to be successful.

Carter shared that ECCO’s original logo had two hands joining together, one darker and the other lighter to emphasize they help everyone. Kelley said they’ve had several variations of the non-profit’s logo over time, but it has always shown that it takes many hands to do this work. ECCO which only had four staff members in 2004 currently has 11 full-time and 10 part-time staff members and 250 active volunteers.

Kelley said the number of people they assist has likely dropped since they moved to the Six Mile location, but explains that is due to the gentrification happening in the area. She said some people coming to ECCO in 2003 may not live here anymore due to their houses being bought, developments coming in or because they can’t afford to live here anymore.

“Yet, I think what we are doing for the people that come through the door and what their needs are is probably more dramatic. Just to think from 2003 until 2019 what the cost of living in this area has done,” Kelley said.

Kelley said that the history of the nonprofit is so interesting and it’s thanks to the effort and thought put into decisions along the way that has allowed ECCO to continue expanding.

Carter expressed that ECCO has touched so many lives and helped so many people since Hugo. He said sometimes people don’t know they’re there until they see the sign out front that shares all the services they offer.

Kelley said over 60% of their new patients say they found out about ECCO from a former patient or from someone in their community. They have also transitioned their food pantry to a client choice model, supplying families with close to a two week food supply each visit.

A nonprofit that emerged from a devastating hurricane 30 years ago, ECCO now serves over 2,000 families annually.

“It’s so interesting to see what can happen out of people’s desire to want to help and make a difference and how that seed can grow and grow,” Kelley said.

Carter said the volunteers are who took his idea and made something of it. When Carter retired from COK in March of 2017 the bishop of South Carolina, Rev. Robert Guglielmone, asked him to remain involved with ECCO. Carter travels each Wednesday afternoon from Edisto to Six Mile Road to visit with the staff and make sure operations are going well.

For more information about ECCO’s basic needs, health and empowerment programs, visit eccocharleston.org. As a part of the nonprofit’s 30th anniversary they are celebrating with a 30-week campaign through Giving Tuesday on Dec. 3. Interested individuals and organizations can get involved through in-kind or financial donations, organizational partnerships and even direct-care volunteer opportunities.