OKEECHOBEE -- Our Village Okeechobee will host an Open House Saturday, April 20, from 4 to 7 p.m. in their adorable little white house at 1703 S.W. Second Ave., one block south of Dominoes Pizza. Our Village Okeechobee was begun in the summer of 2015 after the founder, Leah Suarez, had a near-death experience and afterward was in and out of consciousness for quite some time.
“I was run over by a car,” she explained. When she was feeling better, she immediately got a group of friends together to form a nonprofit dedicated to providing families in Okeechobee with a hand up, not a hand out. We have a group of volunteers, she said. Some are here all the time and some just once a year. “I want people to do what they are comfortable doing. I don’t want to wear anyone out, unless it’s me,” she laughed.
Our Village believes “all of our children and their families should have educational and health activities which promote unity, support, cooperation, cohesion and connectedness to a larger community.” Their goal is to provide a place where families can reconnect with one another and reengage by participating in activities as families.
Our Village partners with Lake Okeechobee Rural Health Network, and they share a space. Last year, they were awarded the Frank Altobello grant to expand programs and space, and when the opportunity presented itself to rent the new house, they jumped at it. “It’s perfect for right now,” said Mrs. Suarez. “I’d like to see us fill it up with activities planned every night of the week. Say, how about a writing workshop?” she asked. Then laughed and said, “You think I’m joking.” Right now, they are busy working on plans for the upcoming “No Alcohol Grad Night.” They have meetings to help with diabetes management, parenting, emotional eating, chronic disease management, and once a month they have a family game night. Next month they plan to add more things to the calendar after they get Grad Night behind them.
One of the things Our Village does that Mrs. Suarez particularly enjoys helping with is helping people behind the scenes. She said they find out what people need — need, not want — she said. Then, they match that up with someone who is able to give. For example, someone might need a pair of work boots so he can start a new job. She would post on Facebook letting people know there is a need without giving any names. Most of the time, the donors remain anonymous, and the recipients are almost always anonymous, she said unless it’s a special circumstance. When someone expresses a need, it is Mrs. Suarez’s job to check it out to see if the need is genuine. She has worked in social services since 1990, she said, and she is not afraid to say no. One time, someone called to tell her she “needed” a new porch because her neighbor had one.
Another program that is dear to her heart is the Backpack-End the Hunger Program. They also help with the high school band and drama club. “Kids often have great ideas,” she said, “and need an organization to rally behind them. If you really want to find out what we are all about, the best way to do it is to come to the open house. We will feed you snacks, curl up on the couch, talk and just hang out.”