Inspiring Okeechobee: Community pulls together in times of need

OKEECHOBEE — This is not the column that I had planned to write for Inspiring Okeechobee this week, and it’s a week later than I would have liked. As many of you now know our daughter-in-law was brutally murdered on the afternoon of Dec. 7, 2016.

The topic of this article perhaps would have been overlooked had it not been for the events of that awful day. This week’s Inspiring Okeechobee is about how we as a community respond to bad news.

Sure, we may get picked on for our “country ways,” a large concentration of “rednecks,” our “Chobee” way of life; but there is no other place on the planet my family would have rather been for the past two weeks than right here, in the hometown I never wanted to come to or remain in as a young teenager.

It’s only because I met a native, and he has a Mama here that I am back and never left. Short of leaving for college, we have lived in the same 15-block radius for most of our lives.

Our home sits right outside the city limits on an average street, with the same look as all the other average folks’ homes, with average people who live on our street, doing average things every day. What makes our town inspiring is that these same average folks take care of their own. I guess we do that, because we are not really part of anything larger than ourselves.

Are we part of the Treasure Coast or the Heartland, are we the Lake Communities or are we the rural counties which make up south central Florida?

This conflict of our area’s identity creates a certain esprit de corps, and it is in that spirit that I find inspiration for this week’s column, when I should really be writing about Santa in the Park or Toys for Tots – two wonderful holiday traditions spearheaded by great folks who come from average homes, with average neighbors like you and me. We must stick together in times like these, because we’re all we’ve got!

When this horrendous crime occurred, of course because we live in a small town, rumors ran rampant. While this is one thing that does cause me concern, I understand that these are things said in haste and curiosity. I also understand though that the fear of not having answers and thinking if this could happen to their family it could happen to mine, causes people to engage the tongue before the brain can disengage it.

Bear with me here, as I do have a point.

The very night of this awfulness, we had an immediate outpouring of love, ministerial support, clothing, blankets, and comfort items rushed to the children at the sheriff’s office. While detectives were conducting interviews, we were corralling children for hours. No easy task in such a frenzy. Sheriff May and Undersheriff Stephen, your staff is to be commended. Out of this love, our children were aware of the profound sadness, but they also were witnesses to great love and compassion.

The very next morning, there were six dozen donuts before the first child stirred. I must say that a house full of children and donuts is quite interesting in terms of managing the activity level. I honestly do not even know who dropped them all off, but what I do know is that we awoke to love, kindness, compassion and God placed the right people in our lives at exactly the right time. We even had those who came to remind us that we can’t be the helpers this time and that it’s okay to be the “helped” for once! I won’t call them out, but I can tell you that people like us need strong reminders on occasion.

Perhaps on more than one occasion, but who’s counting here?

In an instant our babies lost their mother, their home, their sense of stability, their security and their innocence. The oldest child asked me on the first night where he was going to live and who would be their mother. Talk about a broken heart – mine surely was that moment. Think about yourselves having to leave your home after a mundane day at work and school with the clothes on your back. We are thankful to be able to house our grandchildren and son.

Many people would not have had that option. Are we stacked wall to wall, sure but who cares?

My Joe, who you learned a bit more about last time, is just such a hero. I really know no other man who can handle this stress with such grace and poise. This man made sure that he went to that horrible scene and lovingly cleaned the home so our son could try to get some of the family’s belongings out of the home. I might be the public face but he is the rudder to the ship! He even learned that in his most awful singing voice, if he sings the baby, “My Bologna has a first name…” jingle, the baby instantly stops crying! It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

What we can tell you from this atrocity is that we have had every need met, even if we did not express the need, down to being on the last two eggs in the house and someone dropping by freshly laid eggs! We have been overwhelmed with the outpouring of love, compassion, kindness, caring, concern, and most of all when our friends, family and neighbors have been contacted, our privacy for the sake of the children has been paramount on the minds of every one of you. We cannot thank you enough Okeechobee for your outpouring of love, especially when we received the call today to know that we had obtained enough donations to pay off the funeral.

This is our story, but we had never experienced it from the receiving end of things and that is the inspiring nature of this wonderful town we call ours – Okeechobee.

There is no other community that I know that provides local scholarships to its kids in amounts unheard of in metropolitan areas much less a community of our size. We raised $80,000 in a matter of months to send our Brahman Band to Washington, D.C. several years ago. Cancer patients and others with catastrophic illnesses have benefits that raise many thousands of dollars. The Adam Bryant Minimal Regatta. Quarters for Cause.  The Ride for the Fight. Boots and Pearls. United Way Fundraisers. Blood Round Up. Sport sponsorships. Toys for Tots. Shop with a Cop. Okeechobee News editor, Katrina Elsken, even recalls how our small town formed a human chain to load a donated tractor trailer with donated items for one of the small towns hit hard by Hurricane Katrina, down to the driver donating his time to make the delivery. We take great care of others too.

I know I will leave some out (no letters to the editor please), but these are just illustrations of how we are self-reliant, self-sustaining and genuinely the greatest small town on the planet.

I equate us to a large group of siblings – we can fight like heck with one another, but once something happens to one of our own, we circle the wagons and all take care of the one in need – this is what inspired me, Okeechobee.

You have left me in awe this holiday season.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

By Leah D. Suarez

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