Our Village provides services to Okeechobee community

Posted 4/2/24

Our Village has been giving Okeechobee County residents “a hand up, not a hand out,” since 2015.

You must be a member to read this story.

Join our family of readers for as little as $5 per month and support local, unbiased journalism.

Already have an account? Log in to continue. Otherwise, follow the link below to join.

Please log in to continue

Log in
I am anchor

Our Village provides services to Okeechobee community


OKEECHOBEE – Our Village Okeechobee has been giving Okeechobee County residents “a hand up, not a hand out,” since 2015.

At the March 28 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Leah Suarez of Our Village Okeechobee, updated the commission on some of the services the nonprofit organization provides for the community.

“We take care of anybody who walks in the door,” Suarez explained. “We can’t fix everything, but we can try to work on some things.”

She said the organization recently completed a funded research project on food equity in Okeechobee County “which looks at a lot of different factors, including our passion which is mental health and trauma.”

The study found:
• Okeechobee County has a poverty rate of 18.4%
• About 12.8% of residents are disabled.
• About 20.5% of county residents do not have health insurance.

“We know that if you don’t get good food and get good health care, that impacts us as a community as well,” said Suarez.

She said they found 37.1% of children in Okeechobee County are in single-parent households. “With the economics of today, that’s rather challenging,” she said.

The county has a “disconnected youth” rate of 22.5%. She said that statistics looks at children ages 16 to 19 who are not in school or employed. “We have 22.5% of our kids in that age bracket who are disconnected – not in school or employed,” Suarez said.

She said 9,000 of the county’s approximate 40,000 residents receive SNAP or other supplemental food assistance. “That’s up 1,000 from 2018, so that’s a pretty big jump,” Suarez said.

About 5,000 residents are considered “food insecure.”

While there are three emergency food banks, access is limited to weekly or bi-weekly distribution which makes food insecurity even more of an issue, she said.

Our Village distributes about 3,200 pounds of food per week. She said they estimate the wholesale value of the food at $1.79 per pound.

“We strive to provide fresh as often as possible and meat as often as possible – which we know we cannot obtain wholesale at $1.79,” she added. “That’s almost $300,000 worth of food that we do not receive any public support to contribute. Some of the food does come from House of Hope who has their own hydroponic growing systems to a large scale.”

“Our Village works on a collective impact model. Anything that we do is evidence-based,” Suarez continued. “We have 65 local and regional collective impact partners.” She said Our village receives more than 17,000 visitors or calls per year.

“We spent money on a care management portal which we think is invaluable to the community. We raised the money so we could have a care management portal, so we can identify people in need,” she said. “In the future this will reduce repetitive cycle. We’ve had difficulty in the past with clients accessing our food and some people stepping out of bounds so we’ve had to put some rules in place. It’s not just about giving out the food, it’s about educating people so we don’t have to continue to give out food, if at all possible,” she explained.

Mental health support is part of Our Village’s mission. “We manage 66 kids who all have mental health challenges with documented behavioral challenges in school and at home,” Suarez said.
“One of our kids who we provide support for is sometimes the equivalent of 10 kids. A lot of our work is one-on-one. We’re not getting together 125 kids to have fun at Sea World. We can’t manage that with some of the behaviors our children have.

“We serve 10 children currently through our tutoring and homework help,” she continued. That may not sound like a big deal, she said. “It’s a big deal because it’s one on one. Most of these children are two to three years behind academically. The covid pandemic did not help at all. For elementary school students to be behind two to three years in English Language Arts is critical to everything else they are going to learn,” she explained.

“We host a summer camp for children who cannot attend traditional day camp.

“We offer immigration assistance, filling out paperwork for people,” she continued. One person they helped has received their citizenship.

The realistic cost of having one person on the Our Village staff with the education and training required is between $60,000 and $70,000 a year, she explained.

“Currently our drug re-entry and transition program (partially funded by the county) has nine open cases,” Suarez said. “We have two that are in jail on a sentence, six who are involved in drug court and one who has recently been released from jail.

“This nine-person caseload has a cumulative reported total of 87 years in jail or prison. Shockingly, approximately 72 of those years have been spent by these offenders in the Okeechobee County Jail. They may go to prison a year or two, they get out, they get in trouble again, they go right back to jail.

“Nine people have exhausted 72 years of our jail time, at a cost to the county taxpayers of $2.2 million, based on the average cost per day to keep a person in jail.

“If you have the support for folks here to help people connect back to their natural support and get authentic assistance, you only have to keep two folks out of the jail for a year to fund one position,” Suarez said.

“We also provide community service hours for nearly anyone without restriction,” she said. “We have children who have threatened to shoot others. We have children who have threatened to blow up the school. We don’t have a bunch of shoplifters or people who went out and did something silly or got caught with a little bit of marijuana.

“And we don’t let it end there. They might be there to be punished, but we are there to build them up and try to build up their natural support. Most of the children we serve through the diversion program stay with us as volunteers throughout their high school career,” Suarez added.

Suarez said the nonprofit received $550,000 in donations and grants last year and turned that into an estimated impact of $1.6 million in the community.

“It’s difficult but it can be done,” she said.

our village