Back to School Expo helps hundreds of kids

OKEECHOBEE — Back to School is in full swing. New teacher orientation and the fifth annual Back to School Expo at Okeechobee High School were one for the books or, rather, book bags. First, Our Village provided the new teachers in the Okeechobee County School District with nearly 80 “swag bags” to include much needed supplies on their first day! On Saturday, 595 backpacks with supplies were provided to local families at the Expo. That’s not all, though. Families were able to meet with over 40 agencies, churches, businesses and education vendors to learn more about services available in Okeechobee for children and families.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
Tiffany Parrish, program director of the Lake Okeechobee Rural Health Network, was disguised as the Kidcare Superhero at the Back to School Expo event.

Numerous excited volunteers were also on hand to usher attendees, help students make choices of books, clothing items, backpacks, new socks and underwear and, lastly, a choice item from our prize table. Among the volunteers were local students working on obtaining their community service hours for scholarships.

New this year were school physicals provided by Dr. Vidanage and her assistant as well as the popular haircut stop. Seven physicals were completed for needy students and 75 haircuts were provided free of charge to children by the entire staff at All Clean Cuts and staff from the Main Street Salon. To see the eyes of these children light up when they saw their “fresh” cuts brought tears to the volunteers’ eyes. Many of the children had never experienced a professional haircut.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
Leah Suarez’s crazy husband, Joe Suarez, who just wants to help!

An event of this magnitude cannot happen without lots of planning, wonderful sponsors and committed donors. The presenting organizations, Our Village Okeechobee and the Dr. Fred Brown Children’s Health Center, provided the backpacks and Walmart #814 provided funding for the supplies, underwear, socks and new clothing items. Additionally, sponsors included a local graduate, 19-year-old Hunter Strickland, who hosted a pool tournament at Backwoods Billiards to provide supplies and backpacks.

Providing additional financial and other assistance were: The Lake Okeechobee Rural Health Network, Big Lake VFW Post 10539 Auxiliary, Tobacco Free Partnership of Okeechobee, Shutters and Gutters, Tijerina Lawn Service, Nunez Lawn Care and Landscaping, Terry Burroughs, Sondra Shoemaker and family, Diane Hagan, Greg Maynard, Joey and Dawn Hoover, Beth Rautenstrauch, the Okeechobee Children’s Mental Health System of Care, employees at the Okeechobee County School District office and many other local donors who snuck one or more bags of socks, underwear, clothes or school supplies into our office when we weren’t looking!

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
Seventy-five haircuts were provided free of charge to children by the entire staff at All Clean Cuts and staff from the Main Street Salon.

Countless hours go into this event prior to the morning of, but we would be remiss if we did not give a shout out to our packing team that came from all walks of life, augmented with members of the community outreach team of the Okeechobee County Education Association. The bags were packed in less than three hours.

Event coordination is enhanced with our relationship with Christ Fellowship, as they have provided activities for kids and families while they were waiting, conducted registration and helped guide attendees through the process.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
Pam Hancock, Jo Norris, Diane Kaufman and Jane Kaufman with the Local Children’s Mental Health System of Care project.

Finally, we must give a special thank you to the Okeechobee County School District and specifically Okeechobee High School, which welcomes our takeover of the school for this very special weekend.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
It takes a village to make the Back to School Expo such a success.

I would like to give a corporate thank you to the many people who stepped forward and offered to help. You are the “why” behind Our Village. It’s the magic of inviting everyone to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It is the collective impact of each of our tiny parts creating the whole! For you Our Village is thankful and we have been incredibly blessed to be able to spearhead this time of Back to School where we can do a small part to level the playing field for kids who, but for an event like this, may not have the new school year experience of a new backpack, supplies, clothing, a simple haircut — just one thing that makes them equal to their peers.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
Students line-up for their school supplies.

For more information about the wonderful opportunities and activities happening at Our Village Okeechobee, make sure to Like our page on Facebook. Come join in a little or a lot. You’ll be glad you did.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Mary O’Neal
Pictured are the school supplies that were handed out at the Back to School Expo event.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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