Our Village has big dreams for Okeechobee

Okeechobee, Florida, welcome sign

Okeechobee, Florida, welcome sign

OKEECHOBEE — Our Village Okeechobee, a new nonprofit founded in Okeechobee has started to take root.

President, Leah D. Suarez, quoting Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Ms. Mead, who was an anthropologist as well as an activist, thought about the interconnectedness of all aspects of human life. Food production is to ritual and belief while politics cannot be separated from the raising of children or the arts. She also knew the importance of sharing knowledge – that we must embrace our diversity and use it as our greatest resource, not a handicap. We, no matter our level of skill, knowledge, ability or position in the community, all have the capacity to learn from and teach one another.

Much could be said for the founders of Our Village Okeechobee, a group of approximately 30 committed community members who are seeking to evoke change by doing impactful work in Okeechobee.

The mission is to provide families a hand up, not a hand out by providing comprehensive spiritual, cultural, social, health and educational experiences for Okeechobee residents.

Further, the vision is to be the landmark organization for Okeechobee County encompassing cultural experiences with its potential future activities to include: performing arts activities, museums, historical site development; educational opportunities such as mentoring, tutoring, experiential learning, the teaching of craftsmanship and artisanship; health and science experiences such as a creating a walkable community, a community garden, science and agriculture brought to life for our children to learn the newest technology available to sustain our agricultural heritage; and physical activities where our community sees renewed health and well-being, all by calling together government, the faith based community, education, private business, nonprofits and community members in a call to action of service above self.

Our Village Okeechobee envisions a fixed children’s museum and activity center as well as a family life center, a place where residents and families reconnect with one another, reengage by participating in activities together to enhance the lives of all residents.

Our Village also will strive to engage the community in philanthropy as the context for giving, not charity. While charity has its place, Mrs. Suarez explained, “if we are to move our community forward, philanthropy, as the alternative should be considered where self-help and opportunity creation are its core foundation. Philanthropy aspires all of us to do something more long lasting and radical. We, as residents, are responsible for the legacy we leave in our community.”

Our Village will deliver a concise, consistent message to all community members: “while some of you may feel disadvantaged, trapped, underserved, challenged, disabled, maltreated, the path to self-sufficiency will no longer be charity; but our philanthropic mission is to challenge you to work with us to create a path to self-sufficiency.”

Mrs. Suarez is no stranger to social service provision, having provided social services of one form or another in our community for the past 25 years, and notes that the level of dependency has increased exponentially. Children are dependent before they are ever born.

High utilizers of social service programs continue to disproportionately use those services, misuse resources and erode donor confidence in our nonprofit sector, which has led to limited growth in nonprofits, she explained. Most external efforts to build programs have not come to pass, or our community is not served at a level that matches the needs of our population. Our Village challenges the community to examine ourselves from within, and utilize our existing resources to their fullest capacities, to then be able to realize substantive gains in improved community health.

Essentially, community members must buy into a new system of care. While there are great resources here, foundational landmarks are absent to provide our children an opportunity to explore their futures. One local museum, which many of our children have never entered; limited parks, no local children’s music, arts or theater programs outside of the public school setting can no longer be the norm, she stated. Many of our children do not travel outside of our community to cultural activities or historical locations, unless it is through a school field trip.

“While Our Village Okeechobee understands this is a huge undertaking, we know that statistics leading to improved community health, must be looked at as a generational change,” she continued. We have come to challenge the status quo in Okeechobee, and look to bring evidence-based practices to our community to change the culture of health in a broader context – looking at health from a perspective of how can we really move the needle of some of our social and economic determinants of health, and doing things like engaging marginalized segments of our community, gathering data, having difficult conversations, talking about the elephant in the room, and then utilizing other proven models from across the nation right here in Okeechobee to improve our health.

The bottom line is that we have data that suggests that between 60-70 percent of our young people are not completing high school, approximately 10 percent of our community’s residents obtain a degree of a Bachelor’s level or higher, nearly 80% of our school children are receiving free and reduced lunch, we are sixth in the state in teen pregnancy with a rate of 12.8 per 1,000 residents, nearly 75 percent of us are overweight or obese, we scored in the least favorable situation in 32 of 76 of the Florida CHARTS County Health Status Summary categories, as compared to counties across Florida, meaning in these 32 categories we were in the lowest quartile, Mrs. Suarez stated.

The idea of Our Village Okeechobee is not new, just new to Okeechobee. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has changed its model of funding to align with ideas like this that have proven effective across the country. In sum, Rizza Lavizzo-Mourey, the President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation says it like this: “No one should feel that better health is beyond reach or that it is something not deserved. To improve the health and prosperity of our entire nation we must eliminate health disparities, which are often tied to economic and social factors. Healthy communities attract economic growth, and healthy products and practices build new market opportunities. To build a culture of health we need to ensure that all families, especially those with young children, have access to the social and emotional building blocks of physical and emotional well-being.”

Our Village Okeechobee invites the public to their Inaugural Back to School Bash at Osceola Middle School on Saturday, Aug. 1, from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. They are partnering as a Thrivent Action Team with the donation of 1,000 pedometers from the Florida Health Department at Okeechobee County to provide information on the 10,000,000 Steps to a Healthier Okeechobee Challenge.

The concept is simple: we will all collectively walk, 10,000,000 steps by Labor Day on a path to better health.

Like Our Village Okeechobee on Facebook and like 10,000,000 Steps to a Healthier Okeechobee to participate in the walk. Look for exciting things to come.

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