OKEECHOBEE — Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for lifetime." Our Village Okeechobee takes this philosophy to heart by offering a hand up, not a hand out according to director Leah Suarez. Suarez is not against giving a hand out but said you have to help the people move away from the situation that got them there in the first place.
Prior to the pandemic, Our Village was busy, but since the pandemic began, there has been an almost overwhelming need in our county.
“I never really wanted to do food, but often food is the one thing we can change in the lives of the people who come here,” said Suarez. “Before the pandemic even started, there was a $9 million food gap here in Okeechobee. That means we needed another $9 million in income in our county in order to ensure every person in Okeechobee County had three meals each day.”
Our Village is not a food pantry but does try to keep food available for those in need. They have received a grant from Vitamin Angels, and partnered with Healthy Start, they attempt to fill the potential eight-day food gap people run into when looking for help. If someone were to go in today and say they have absolutely no food which happens a couple times every week, they would be asked if they were on SNAP. If they said no, Our Village would try to find out if they were eligible. An expedited approval process generally takes five days and then two or three days to get the card once they are approved.
This is a potential eight days with no food in the household. In these cases, they provide a bag of food to help the family through this time period. When needed, they are given a card they can use at Ferrel’s Market to purchase meat and produce and are introduced to the Fresh Access Program. In this program, they purchase something and are then given points they can use to buy local produce. If they still need help, they are introduced to a food pantry. Vitamin Angels is for pregnant women and young children.
Our Village has also developed a relationship with local farmers and ranchers and will soon have fresh milk from Sutton Milk and grass-fed beef, free range chicken and eggs. “We have begun to get a network of people so every once in a while we will get a call from someone saying they have a pallet of cabbage or crates of corn, potatoes or onions, things like that.”
Our Village received a second grant from No Kid Hungry. Normally, this grant is only given to school districts, but Our Village was invited to write for a grant and was chosen to receive one. Usually, they fund up to $50,000, but Our Village was given almost $80,000. With this grant, they intend to continue the mobile markets working with United Against Poverty. The plan is to bring the food into the neighborhoods where it is needed.
“I like that it levels the playing field,” said Suarez. “People can come in here and get their groceries just like anyone else can.” Suarez feels it is very important for people to have choices as well. “It is important in terms of mental health,” she explained. Rather than just hand them a bag, they want people to have some choices they can make on their own.
“A lot of times food pantries get food no one wants to eat. We might get a ton of cans of canned squash. Not everybody wants to eat that. I appreciate they don’t want to waste it, but if you would not eat it, they probably don’t want to eat it either. I always tell people, we want your donation, but we want you to donate things you would want if you were in that situation. Give things you can be proud of giving.”
Another thing they plan to do with the No Kid Hungry grant is to buy a large commercial microwave so families who do not have electricity or any way to heat food can come in, select some food and heat up dinner for their family. They can either eat it at Our Village or take it home. “You’d be surprised how many people in Okeechobee do not have any way to heat food,” said Suarez. “Everybody deserves to have something warm in their belly. It doesn’t have to be every meal, but it should be some.”
There are several things a person has to have in order to be healthy, said Suarez. “One of them is, of course, food. Another is health care. If someone does not have health insurance, there is very little we can do for them.” It breaks her heart when some people come in and talk about how they have delayed getting help for a health problem, because they do not have insurance or they are under insured. “Because Medicaid was not expanded in Florida, it has caused many people not to be eligible to receive it. The thing people don’t understand," said Suarez "is we will be paying for these people’s health care one way or the other. When we don’t allow them to have preventive health care, they get worse, and we end up paying more. We need to be proactive rather than reactive, but for whatever reason, we don’t want to pass the legislation.”
The third need, she said, is a roof over their heads. A common problem Suarez sees through Our Village is that if a person has no income to continue paying something like rent or a utility bill, she cannot use federal dollars to help them. For example, if someone came in and said they got behind on their rent for some particular reason and if it were caught up, they could afford to pay it, Our Village could use federal money to help. However, if someone came in and said they had no job and were behind on the rent and had no way to pay the rent in the coming months, federal funds could not be used, because next month, the person would be in the same exact spot.
“We don’t have $800 a month to pay for rent for someone,” she said. “A lot of seniors are in that boat too. They are on a fixed income, but the cost of living has gone way up, rent has gone up. Gas has gone up. Food has gone up. The $1,200-$1,500 they get is not enough anymore. Even food stamps are not really going to help them she explained. With that much unearned income, they are not going to get much food stamps.”
Soon, there will be a caseworker for Heartland Homeless Coalition working out of the Our Village office and that should take a huge burden off of Our Village. She will be covering Okeechobee, Hendry and Glades for housing. “That will be a huge help for us, because we have been doing all those applications,” said Suarez. “She will be assisting with rental housing and some utilities.”
In addition to helping with physical needs, Our Village also helps with emotional needs. They have counselors, a therapist, peer support for teens and young adults and will soon be building private spaces for telepsychiatry visits. “We don’t just hand people a phone number when they are struggling and need help. We get on the phone or computer and help them figure out what needs to be done, connect them with the right people. Some people do not find it easy to understand what they need to do. It’s overwhelming for them. Why not help them if we can? People are not going to tell you they can’t read and write, but there are lots of people who can’t. If we just tell them to go on some website, they won’t know what to do. Sometimes we have to advocate for them. When you are in crisis, sometimes you just can’t do it yourself. We might not be able to fix everything, but we can start with one thing.”
Many of the Our Village volunteers are teenagers. They are able to get community service hours for their time and feel like they have been an important part of helping people get back on their feet.
If you would like to donate some of your time to help, see Leah Suarez at Our Village, 205 N.E. Second Street.