Inspiring Okeechobee: Health benefits coordinators help Okeechobee families

OKEECHOBEE — At Florida Community Health Centers (FCHC), tucked away behind the scenes there is a group of ladies (and one guy) who have been helping families for over ten years. The Health Benefits Coordinators are led by Director Mary O’Neal. Each month they assist nearly 1300 people in Okeechobee with needed assistance and thousands more in the counties surrounding Lake Okeechobee, as well as in some coastal communities.

The program was founded in Okeechobee in 2007. It was in response to computer based applications for Medicaid, SNAP and other types of assistance. Previously people could apply for assistance by going into a local office and seeing someone in person. For people who did not know how to use a computer or those with a language barrier, this program was critical to make sure that children and their families obtained the needed medical coverage to keep their children and themselves healthy.

The Health Benefits Coordinators quickly added other types of help, and often find themselves assisting with advocacy for their clients in many aspects of our community.

Many of the clients served by the Health Benefits staff have been receiving help for many years and feel like these ladies (and one guy) are part of the “family.” They bring new babies in, share family milestones, and seek out help when they face tough times.

Mary and her crew also make sure they have a presence in the community by hosting numerous outreach events to share information about public health benefits, dispelling rumors about benefits with vulnerable populations, and sharing other health information with those who may not otherwise venture into an office setting to ask for help.

The Health Benefits staff were the impetus behind the Back to School Expo each August, as they desired to have an event where children and families would receive education as well as much-needed supplies for back to school time. Most of the families that are served in this program need a bit of assistance when it is back to school time, as it can be quite expensive if one is trying to get multiple children off to school. This year will be the third year a large event has been hosted and you will see the girls (and one guy) with their smiles on, registering families, directing foot traffic, handing out backpacks and making sure people are enjoying their time at the Expo. They raise money all year long to buy supplies, but they don’t stop there!

The Health Benefits Coordinators take up the cause when there is a family in need, cooking and serving meals to their staff and folks in the community, just to help.

There was one patient who said, “I have two Master’s degrees and worked in the corporate world all my life. This stuff is so confusing, I can’t figure it out,” when he was there to ask for help with an application for his elderly father. “These ladies made sure I understood it all.”

These rock stars have helped countless families in our community over the past 10 years, and live the statement attributed to Confucius, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” If you find yourself in need of help, give them a call at 863-763-1951, you’ll be glad you did. They inspire me and I know they will inspire you!

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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