Community, Compassion, Commitment

By Bridgette Waldau
Photography by Sharon Jones 

When someone walks through the door at Our Village, the goal is to find out what they need to live the best life that they can and how Our Village can help them do just that. 

Our Village Okeechobee, a non-profit organization, started with a vision of one person 23 years ago. This vision came to founder Leah Suarez, after a near death experience. The vision came to her in the form of a dream, a dream so clear she could not ignore it. But I’ll let her tell it… 

“So in that state of whatever it was, I was having dreams, and literally visions of Jesus,” Leah said. “Stuff like that doesn’t happen to people like me. Funny thing, though, was one dream stuck with me about Our Village. I was seeing this orb, and my husband, the quintessential guy who must have a million children around, literally pops out of a clown car in this city with kids.” Soon after getting out of the hospital, Leah wrote her vision for Our Village. 

Her vision became a reality soon after college. She gathered a group of friends, sharing her idea. Leah told them, “Listen, you guys know that I’m the craziest person ever, probably your craziest friend but hear me out.” She pitched her vision, adding, “I have no money, I have no means to start this other than you guys throwing money in the pot and deciding to be a board member or volunteer.” She needed a village to make Our Village a reality. 

Who is Leah Suarez, this energized self-proclaimed crazy person? Leah’s family moved to Okeechobee from Sarasota 40 years ago when she was in high school. Through hard work, her parents, Joani and Richard Hargrave, owners of a local thrift store called Uncle Dick’s, were able to send Leah to college. She moved away and graduated from the University of Central Florida with no plans to return. 

Leah and her husband, Joe Suarez, met in high school, staying in touch through college. They eventually married, and in the 1990s ended up moving back to Okeechobee, both working for the State of Florida. This was also shortly after Leah’s mom suddenly died. The couple are bilingual, and this was an advantage because the State needed bilingual people with bachelor’s degrees to work in Okeechobee at that time. They are blessed with six children, three of whom are adopted. 

After receiving a degree in Public Speaking, Leah quickly began to realize her passion was public service. Her career in state government included working for the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, Department of Revenue, Department of Children and Families, and Florida Community Health Centers. She also developed many state programs and projects. 

Her public service experience and tenacity led the way to open Our Village Okeechobee in 2015. 

The mission of Our Village Okeechobee is giving people a hand up and not a handout. They follow the philosophy of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu. “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.” Leah is eager to help but explains you must also help people move away from the situation that got them there in the first place. Our Village helps with food and clothing needs but also helps with keeping the electricity on or providing gas in your car. If economic problems persist, they will help you and then help you to find ways to overcome those problems. 

Our Village began in a bedroom at the Suarez’s home, moving to a small office, and then to a tiny “cracker house.” Realizing they needed more room, Leah prayed for a bigger space. “I decided I was going to let God handle it. Then a building became available.” Our Village moved to their current headquarters in 2019, but it came with a unique background—it was an old funeral home. Leah says, “Some think it’s weird. I think it’s bringing life back to a place associated with death. A place that held sadness is now where people can come and feel welcomed.” 

The larger facility was cordoned off into several sections including a thrift shop to help raise money and rooms for education, virtual school, homeschooling, tutoring and peer counseling. 

As with any non-profit, funding is a challenge. There are eleven qualified professionals at Our Village, and all are paid through grants. To provide the best, Leah says, “I have to have the funding in place and I have to have a positive working place.” Funding for day-to-day operations comes from fundraising events, retail income and donations. Volunteers and in-kind services also make up an essential part of Our Village’s survival. 

It wasn’t long before Our Village grew many other branches:

The Food Pantry 

Our Village plays a leading role in helping families fulfill their food needs. Leah said, “We never intended to have a food pantry, but often food is the one thing that changes lives. It came about during the pandemic.” They realized there was a tremendous need and continued the food pantry. The Food Pantry is at the main headquarters. 

In 2022, the original thrift store was moved and became Joani’s Exchange, named after Leah’s mother. Located directly across the street from Our Village’s main headquarters, this store is now a quaint boutique. The thrift store assists clients with their needs and is open to the public for shopping. Administrative Assistant, Debbie Carr, runs the thrift store, where she also often teaches job skills to kids. 

This branch of Our Village was also formed in 2022. Their primary focus is helping with immigration. The process is expensive and most of the work involves cumbersome paperwork. It can be done more affordably with help from those trained in the process. The goal is to help immigrants become lawfully authorized and work towards a better life. 

Mary O’Neal, Director of Operations for Our Village and Nuestro Pueblo states, ” I do what I do because I love my community and I believe in our community. There is always a place for you at Our Village. Our casa es su casa!” 

Filling the needs of the youth in Okeechobee, Peer Support is dedicated to helping children have happy childhoods. They want children to have a positive outlook and achieve great things in life, not be afraid to make mistakes and think they “can’t do” before they even try. Peer Support Specialists provide understanding during a time when children feel anxious, bullied, hopeless or just different. 

Peer Support also extends into the public-school classrooms. This is where Veronica Gilchrist, Peer Support Specialist, spends her weekdays talking with kids who are having challenges in the classroom and helping them work through any issues that may be keeping them from learning and being successful. Pat McCoy, principal at Yearling Middle school where they have a Peer Support “Reset Room”, stated, ” Our village has been a lifesaver for yearling middle school. Our students are thriving in the peer support program. They have a place and a person to go to when they’re feeling the need to talk to someone. They have a consistent person to call their trusted adult”. 

Funded by the Southeast Florida Behavioral Health Network, this coalition focuses on ways to guide and create prevention activities, working to reduce substance use among young people. The Coalition provides education and awareness about the dangers of substance abuse. They use education to help reduce substance abuse before it starts or worsens. Our Village goes even further by also including help to prevent bullying and other anti-social activities. 

This newest branch of Our Village is named in honor of Clemence Einhorn, a teacher who touched the lives of many students, leaving an indelible mark on their learning journey. The Center offers after-school tutoring, home-school help, peer support, art classes, and more. Director Elaine Keller said, “We’re trying to offer different things to get more people involved.” This Center is packed in the afternoons with tutors, overflowing into the main headquarters. The art classes are a great tool for helping students. Most students are elementary school age, but classes will expand to teach all ages. The Center offers other activities, such as family nights, Bible studies, health education and outside group meetings. 

Stepping outside the walls of their headquarters, you will find Our Village all over Okeechobee holding events and fundraisers, not only for themselves but for others. Some of their events include Back-To-School Expo, OHS graduation party, food truck events, yard sales, movies in the parking lot and much more. A new event coming up is Penny’s Pet Pageant and a grant writing workshop. Follow them on Facebook and you will see an endless feed of what they do. 

What started as a vision of one, turned into the work of a mighty village. Many people were needed to bring Our Village Okeechobee to life. 

Alex Tijerina, Director of Development and Community Engagement, says “Our Village is blessed to have a large support system within Okeechobee and the surrounding areas. and we hope as we are able to get out into the community to provide this valuable information, that we will see our amazing small town come together, invest in and support the change Our Village is making.” 

What is a typical day at Our Village? Leah said, “Like a Hurricane! We are in the eye of the hurricane watching everything around us swirl by and somehow come together.” And it is indeed non-stop for the organization. 

A few days after interviewing Leah, a sadness fell over the Okeechobee community. A brother and sister, high school student volunteers at Our Village, lost their lives in a tragic car accident. Our Village immediately set up grief counseling with extended hours. Knowing the community needed to come together, they organized a candlelight vigil within two days of the accident. Over 200 attended an evening of prayer and remembrance for the hurting community. They also aided in fundraising to help the family. 

Leah, with the help of a “Village” of educators, volunteers, community leaders and organizations, will continue to provide services to help people have a good life. The saying goes “it takes a village” and Okeechobee is blessed to have a village, Our Village Okeechobee. 

Our Village Okeechobee is located at 205 NE 2nd Street, Okeechobee, FL.

For more information about this organization and how you can help or donate, call (863) 447-0473 or go to