Healthy Families and Our Village work together


OKEECHOBEE — The Helping People Succeed organization began more than 50 years ago as a way for parents to help their children with disabilities live a happy and productive life.

As years went by, the agency branched out, offering different services such as Baby Steps — for families with young children, Healthy Families — offering support for families experiencing stress in their lives making parenting more of a challenge, Language and Literacy Services — intended to help improve literacy rates in children, Children’s Community Mental Health — offering outpatient counseling for children between the ages of 5 and 18 and finally, Successful Futures — helps youth and adults with disabilities with the skills they need to find employment and matches these clients with local businesses.

Gina Ortiz is the supervisor over the Healthy Families services in Okeechobee. The program is nationally accredited and funded by the Department of Children and Families. When a woman becomes pregnant, she is screened at the doctor’s office, and this screening is sent to a central base. The family is contacted to see if they would be interested in a parenting program. Okeechobee has three of these available — Healthy Families, Healthy Start and Parents as Teachers. The families choose the program they would like more information on, and if they choose Healthy Families, they are sent to Ortiz.

 “We are a parenting program,” said Ortiz. “When a family requests our services, we go in the home. Our program is completely voluntary. Families can join the program any time they’d like as long as the baby is less than 6 months old at the time, and they can quit the program any time they’d like.

The program is for pregnant women and children up to age 5.”

Ortiz explained when they make home visits, they are there to help the entire family, and the goal is to set up a good foundation for the child’s life. They provide a curriculum to teach the mom about the child’s development and how she can promote that development. “We are all about creating a parent/child interaction,” said Ortiz. “That bond with the baby.”

They do a home safety check and provide supplies to help make the baby safe. They also monitor the mom’s physical and mental health, keeping a careful eye out for signs of depression. They offer another curriculum centered around the self-esteem of the mom.

Our Village makes a point of building relationships with the other agencies in town so that when someone comes into Our Village, they can be pointed to the places they need to go and, in some cases, they can be taken by the hand and led through the process. Leah Suarez, founder and executive director of Our Village said this is the case with Healthy Families.

“As a matter of fact, we both shared our first official office, but we quickly outgrew that one,” said Suarez.

She said she wanted to have a close connection so when parents come in, there is no break, no gap in services. They don’t have to go somewhere else and fill out a big packet of papers.

“When people are in crisis, it is hard. We want to try to make it easier for them, in a place where they are already comfortable. We want to make authentic connections.”

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Our Village participated in Pinwheels for Prevention along with Healthy Families, the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Children and families and The Closet. Pinwheels for Prevention is a national campaign designed to create awareness of child abuse prevention efforts in our state and our community.

Last year, Healthy Families was 100% successful in keeping the children in their program abuse free.

“This is important,” said Suarez. “Okeechobee County has one of the highest abuse rates in the state, and we have been very high for a long time. Mental health is so important to us. I think the work Healthy Families does is wonderful, and we try to come alongside them so there is no gap.”

Families do not have to be sent to Healthy families by a doctor or agency. They can contact Healthy Families themselves. As long as they have a baby less than 6 months old, they are eligible.

In Okeechobee, Healthy Families can be reached at 863-623-5119 or by emailing Our Village is located at 205 N.E. Second Street.

Healthy Families, Helping People Succeed, Our Village, Child abuse, OCSO, DCF