OKEECHOBEE — Taking care of people is something that seems to come naturally to Leah Suarez, the founder and president of Our Village Okeechobee. Leah moved to Okeechobee with her parents and brother in the early ’80s from Sarasota. Her dad lost his business during the recession and came here to run a trailer park. It came with a house for the family to live in, but the whole situation was a shock for the teens. They went from being a fairly well-to-do family to living in a small hick town in a migrant trailer park.
After high school, her brother joined the military, and she went off to college, neither of them planning to ever come back to Okeechobee. But, she ended up marrying a native, and they came back after college. “And here we are, all these years later.”
When Leah first started college, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She had a hard time getting care, because, being self-employed, they were uninsured. By Leah’s final semester of college, her mother was supposed to be cancer free, according to the doctors, but she did not have very good care, because of the lack of insurance. “Three weeks before my graduation, my mom died suddenly, and that was devastating. My grandmother had passed away from a stroke six weeks before that. It was a very difficult time.”
After her mother passed away and Leah and her husband, Joe, graduated from college, they ended up with Leah’s 2-year-old nephew, who had been living with his grandmother while Leah’s brother was overseas. This helped them make the decision to move back to Okeechobee, she explained. They felt they needed to be closer to family.
They both got jobs working for the Department of Children and Families which was called HRS (Human Resource Services) back then. “Mostly we helped people with Medicaid.” At that time, the DCF was specialized, so you worked in Medicaid or food stamps or cash assistance. It was not like it is today. There were no computers when they started. They automated after they started, and Leah and Joe were chosen to go to training ahead of everyone else, and then when everyone else went to training, they were able to troubleshoot. “By being put in that role, we were able to do a lot of training for the staff,” she said. Leah was given the opportunity to convert the difficult cases into what was known as the Florida System, and she was able to learn a lot about eligibility for all of the programs. When she worked for the state, they told her she would never make money if she stayed in the same position, so she began moving around to different positions, to get exposed to other areas, like child support, child protection, and things like that. “It made me well-rounded in terms of having a lot of knowledge for multiple programs, but it also gave me insight into the people who reached out for help,” she explained, “the stigma they face when they apply for help and the thoughts of other people who don’t understand the policy. So many people don’t understand what poverty really looks like, what people really struggle with.” Leah went on to say her feelings go back to her mother’s struggle and her eventual death. “Had she had access to actual insurance that we could have afforded or had she had Medicaid, she didn’t have to die. She had malignant melanoma from a mole on her back that she left untreated, because she did not have the money to pay for the visits. There were things she could have done differently, radiation and chemotherapy which she did not get to make sure she did not have to die from a simple mole that could have been treated. So, that’s really what drives me. Just knowing that Medicaid and Healthy Kids, those programs are there to help us. That’s why we pay our taxes. Sometimes we do need them.”
When Leah and Joe first moved to Okeechobee, they had to get food stamps, she said. For many years, this was something she was embarrassed to admit, but now she realizes those programs are there for a reason. “No one should be embarrassed when they need to use them. That’s why they are there,” she said.
The typical welfare recipient now is not what it used to be, she said. Now, they are mostly relatives taking care of family members, grandparents taking care of grandchildren because the parents struggle with mental health or addiction or just can’t care for them. “Not that I wouldn’t help anybody, but it’s really those folks people do not understand,” she said. “It’s one thing to take care of children, but it’s another to do it while you are in poverty.”
When Joe and Leah first took in their nephew, they did not have financial support. They had no assistance, they just did it all themselves. Later, they took in his siblings, and they almost went bankrupt before they finally got help.
“So. That’s why I do what I do. I remember how hard it was for my mom to get help. I believe people shouldn’t die because they can’t get health care. I hate that people think if you get Medicaid you are this dreg on society. NO! You’re not! You need help.”
Our Village came about several years ago when Leah was in her Masters Program at UCF and working for the Regional Health Planning Counsel. She got very ill, so ill she actually felt suicidal, she said. She had Joe call her boss and tell her she could not come back to work, that she was having a breakdown. She was having severe pain from car accidents she had years earlier and was dealing with unresolved childhood trauma on top of that, she said. She ended up having several surgeries and during one of the surgeries, she had a near-death experience and experienced vivid dreams about what it would look like if there was a place where people could go to get help they needed and maybe even a little of the things they just wanted. “They were incredible dreams. I didn’t see ‘The Light,’ but I felt the Lord’s presence there with me,” she said. She went on to say that there were things confirmed after the fact that had no earthly explanation. “I came home and wrote the visionary document for Our Village, and I still have that. It hasn’t played out exactly like I wrote it, but it’s been really exciting to see.”
Our Village is not a faith-based center, but it is faith-influenced. They did not want people to stay away thinking they would be preached at if they came. “We want them to come no matter what.”
Leah often says that Our Village is a hand up not a hand out. “We just want it to be a place where people can come and find a little bit of refuge and help when they need it.”