OKEECHOBEE — It takes a special person to deliver a message of hope and healing to people dealing with mental health and addiction issues. But, Debbie Clemons is more than just a special person — she’s an angel of mercy.
Debbie has ministered to women in jail, counseled adults struggling with substance use disorders, represented children in court, volunteered at schools, and whenever there is an opportunity, she cooks hearty meals for cattle crews, church groups, gatherings of family and friends, as well as perfect strangers.
Last year she joined the board of New Horizons of the Treasure Coast and Okeechobee — the largest mental health agency in the region — because she understands the importance of quality mental health services that are accessible and affordable to the residents of Okeechobee.
“I know very few families that haven’t been touched by mental illness or addiction,” says Debbie, who has been married to her husband, Jeff Clemons, for 46 years. They have three sons, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
The Clemons Family has owned and operated the Okeechobee Livestock Market for more than a half century. They have deep roots and a profound investment in the community.
On Nov. 7, Debbie and Jeff will host a Farm to Table Dinner at the Okeechobee Livestock Market to benefit New Horizons, featuring a delectable homegrown steak meal with all the fixin’s. Food preparations are by County Commissioner David Hazelief and Chef Gary Frazier.
The Thursday evening event includes a discussion led by Molly Steinwald, Ph.D. about the relationship between mental health and nature. In addition, there will be a photography display of the late pioneer and rancher Bud Adams. The paintings of rancher Brad Phares will also be presented.
“This is a time of celebration,” said Debbie Clemons. “We love the lifestyle in Okeechobee, where there are still wide open fields, plenty of wildlife and almost everyone knows their neighbors by name. We care about each other’s wellbeing.”
A native of Oklahoma, and raised in Texas, Debbie had spent summers with family in Okeechobee throughout her younger years. Later, her future mother-in-law, Ida Clemons, arranged a blind date for Debbie and Jeff. And that is how it all started.
For the past three decades, Debbie has worked with Alpha Ministries teaching a faith-based 12-step recovery program to women dealing with alcohol and drug addiction. In addition, she spent 13 years as a chaplain at the Okeechobee County Jail, five years as a guardian ad litem — for which she was awarded Guardian Ad Litem of the Year for the four-county district. She was given the Hometown Hero Award for her work organizing “Zip-Love,” a campaign to fill Ziploc bags with basic necessities for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The Zip-Love effort was re-established recently to help the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.
“We are not alone in our situations, help is available. There are people who really care and who can make a difference,” said Debbie.
Traditionally, access to mental health services in rural areas is limited. However, New Horizons has attempted to meet the needs of the community by offering outpatient care at a clinic at 1600 S.W. Second Avenue, as well as a mobile crisis unit that operates any time of the day or night.
The agency also works with the school district, providing in-school drug prevention and an anti-violence curriculum.
Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and addiction, people are reluctant to talk about those topics. This silence is destroying lives, families and even entire communities. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. among 10- to 34-year olds and drug overdose is now the leading cause of death among people under the age of 50.
“We want people to know we are just a phone call away,” said Debbie. “Getting the word out there is the key and we are doing this by hosting discussions, social gatherings, and talking to our community’s residents one-on-one. Humans are resilient, so with quality care, compassionate providers and open hearts, healing is possible.
Debbie will also chair the agency’s 61st anniversary gala on March 14, 2020 at Harbour Ridge Yacht and Country Club in Palm City. Moreover, Debbie recently launched A Community Conversation in Okeechobee, which is a lunch time educational and networking initiative to explore opportunities to build a healthier tomorrow.
Established in 1958, New Horizons is a nonprofit organization with eight outpatient offices across Okeechobee, St. Lucie, Martin and Indian River counties. The agency serves 14,000 children and adults annually, regardless of their ability to pay. Based in Fort Pierce, the main campus on Midway Road also houses a 100-bed inpatient crisis center for children and adults.
“My greatest joy is serving others who are struggling to find peace and fulfillment in their lives through a spiritual connection,” said Debbie. “If anyone has a calling for service, I’d love to get to know them. The Lord knows there are never too many helping hands.”
For information about New Horizons or to purchase tickets to the Farm to Table Dinner, please visit www.nhtcinc.org or call 772-696-2729. Tickets are also available at the Okeechobee Livestock Market.