"Is Echolink a good way to make your "first contact"? "
Not in my opinion, no.
If you have an amateur radio license issued by the FCC, you have the authority to operate a radio, under Part 97 and to the limits of your license class. You took a test to earn this license. That is a pretty big deal! The hobby has a lot to offer, and frankly, Echolink is not really representative of the amateur radio experience. You might as well call the other guy on the phone.
If you need a radio, you can buy an older used FM handheld for about $50, or borrow one from a friendly ham at your local radio club.
There are EIGHT clubs within 20 miles of your zip code. I **strongly** encourage you to join at least one of them. Here is the list:http://www.arrl.org/FandES/field/club/clubsearch.phtml?zip=64119&selzip=Show+clubs+near+ZIP+location&dist=20