OKEECHOBEE — Raye Deusinger, who jokingly refers to herself as the “vampire lady” because of her work with the Okeechobee Blood Roundup, celebrated her 85th birthday Thursday, Jan. 28. Her family wanted to make the day special, but because of COVID-19 concerns, decided to forgo the luncheon they first considered.
One of Raye’s grand daughters suggested a drive-by party, and according to Raye’s daughter Diana, it took on a life of its own.
Raye is involved in many different things in Okeechobee. She not only leads the Okeechobee Blood Roundup, she also leads the Okeechobee Business Women’s Referral Network, is an ambassador for the Chamber of Commerce of Okeechobee, works with Main Street Okeechobee and has worked with the Okeechobee Community Theatre for many years. When the family first started organizing the party, they were not sure how to reach out to all of Raye’s friends, because they could not just ask her for her contacts without giving away the surprise.
“We started by calling people we knew and then asked them who else they knew and so on. Every person we talked to was absolutely wonderful in helping us pull off this surprise,” said Diana. “Paulette at Brown Cow Sweetery made cupcakes and individually wrapped them so there was no concern about Covid cooties. People posted on their Facebook pages about it. Merrilee at the radio station arranged for a shout out from Billy. Michele Bell the Okeechobee PIO was instrumental in getting the police and fire departments involved. Her friends, her church family, her Blood Roundup volunteers, her Okeechobee main street buddies, her Business Women’s group, her Chamber of Commerce peeps — everyone had a hand in this.”
“My mom has always said how special the Okeechobee community is and how much she loves it and after speaking with so many people while planning this event, I can certainly see why. The wonderful things people said about my mom, how everybody immediately said ‘I’m in’, how willing to help us plan this was so heartwarming. This meant the world to her as well as to my sister Ann and me,” said Diana.
There were close to 50 vehicles lined up for the parade, and Raye was completely surprised by the whole thing. Diana and her husband, Ted, came to town the night before and spent the night, but Raye thought her daughter Ann was working. They convinced Raye that Ted had to go see someone about a boat, when in reality, he was out putting up signs directing everyone to the party and picking up cupcakes.
When Ted returned, they told Raye she had to go in her room and not peek because they had a surprise for her. Raye obediently sat in her room by herself until Ann, who had been at the Catholic church nearby helping organize the vehicles, made it to the house. When Raye saw Ann, she thought Ann was her surprise and was excited to see her. Soon though, they began to hear sirens and rushed Raye outside in her tiara and sash, where Ted and Diana had decorated the yard with signs and balloons.
“She really had no idea what was about to happen. It finally dawned on her that all those cars were there for her! She laughed, she cried, she was completely overwhelmed. It was so beautiful! People brought cards and gifts and had their cars decorated with signs and streamers and balloons and it was all better than we had dreamed,” said Diana.
“She has called me 10 times since we got back home to Tampa tonight to say thank you and how it was the best birthday she has ever had. But it was really a present for my sister and me to see how happy her wonderful city makes her.”
Raye is the chairperson for Okeechobee’s Blood Roundup which according to their website “has rustled up thousands of units of blood, saving thousands of lives!” Many towns have blood drives occasionally, usually when there is a catastrophe or a beloved town member is ill. Okeechobee has the distinction of having the largest and longest continuous blood drive in the state of Florida, and this is owed largely to the efforts of Raye. Every year she can be seen knocking on doors asking for donations, reminding everyone she meets to get out and donate. There are no excuses in Raye’s book. One man tried to tell her he couldn’t donate because he was diabetic, but she immediately shot that excuse down. Next he told her he was too old, but she replied she was quite certain she was older than him and she donates all the time. With no further excuses, the man finally just walked away.
A “party” of a different kind was held for Raye on Saturday, Jan. 30 when a blood drive was held in her honor. The goal was 85 units for her 85th birthday.
“In the past 15 years, The Roundup, has worked with One Blood in drawing blood to help the sick in Okeechobee as well as throughout Florida. The Roundup has, through YOUR efforts, in a total of only 30 days – just two days each year - gathered 5,814 units of blood, potentially saving as many as 16,000 lives.,” said Raye.