Inspiring Okeechobee: Uncle Joe, photographer and dad extraordinaire!

OKEECHOBEE — Editor’s note: This week, the Okeechobee News starts a new column “Inspiring Okeechobee.” This weekly feature will showcase Okeechobee residents who inspire others through volunteering their time and efforts, overcoming a personal challenge or finding other ways to give their best to the community and inspire others to follow their example. If you would like to nominate someone who inspires you to be featured in this column, email to kelsken@newszap.com.

When I was asked to write the column, Inspiring Okeechobee, I said “yes,” without hesitation or equivocation. The stories that move me to write are those, not always the big, flashy happenings around town. I prefer the stories often untold, of our community, its people and the reason why we love this town called Okeechobee.

I did not have to look far for inspiration and there is no other person in Okeechobee that I would write about for my first article, other than “Uncle Joe” Suarez. Otherwise known affectionately as “Uncle Joe” by nearly a decade of OHS Brahman Band students, Joe has been inspiring our family for many years.

Joe and I have the not-so-typical sweetheart story. In the spring of 1985, I set him up with my very good friend for the Senior Prom! He thought I was a (oops, can’t write that in the paper). We were obviously in the friend zone!

Who knew? Most people do not know much about him, other than his sense of humor and his “okay, I’ll do it” attitude.

“Uncle Joe” Suarez

Joe is the son of a Mexican immigrant family who were one of the original Hispanic families that settled in Okeechobee in the 1950s. They came here as migrant farmworkers. Joe went to the fields one time and knew he had to go to college. Joe left Okeechobee in 1985, with a 10-speed bicycle and a budget of $10 a week, to attend the University of Florida. Through the college experience, we penned letters and nearly a year later he decided that he did not quite mind me too much. Joe graduated from the University of Florida with his Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting in 1989 and was the first in his family to obtain a college degree.

Why does he inspire me though? You see, Joe and I became adoptive parents soon after our wedding due to family circumstances, and he would be seen with our two-year-old all around town. Back in that time, people always “wondered” what a Hispanic man was doing with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy in tow.

We agreed that I wanted two children, and he wanted four, so we settled on six! Three joined our family by way of adoption and three by way of the stork.

Our family has been the one where even the kids would bring their friends here. To date we have had the pleasure of sheltering more children than we can keep track of. If they were in need, they knew that they could call and we would pick them up — often times off the streets, even if for a night. The beds are almost never empty in our home!

Our home is evidence of the children who have blessed us with their love and affection. It earned every hole in the wall and broken window!

About 10 years ago, our daughter was in the marching band and somehow it evolved that Joe was “all-time chaperone” and unofficial band photographer.

Two of the boys have followed suit. It still amazes me how Joe can get the pictures that no one else can. The OHS Brahman Band is likely one of the most photographed bands in the country. This simple act has allowed parents and loved ones to feel like they are “there” at the competition. What people do not see is the thousands of hours that he spends after getting home at 1, 2, or 3 a.m. to edit and make sure that he does not put one picture up that has not met with his “approval.” He has worn out computers and cameras in the process, but never complains. In the past few years, Uncle Joe, tries to make the OHS Drama Club performances too!

What people do not realize, is that he made a sacrifice to give up his beloved teaching job to return to the world of Probation and Parole, in an effort to support our family. On top of giving up what he loved, he also drives daily to downtown West Palm Beach, and has continued driving 140 miles every day for the past 15 years. Many people ask what he does for a living, because they never get to see him leave home in the morning. Joe works for the U.S. Southern District Courts as a Federal Probation Officer. We know the sacrifice but have never had at the forefront of our minds the risk he takes every day for our family. The risk becomes more real every day, with the current events in our nation.

You can check out Joe’s work on the Okeechobee High School Brahman Band and OHS Drama Club – Thespian Troupe 7319 Facebook pages. Like the pages and follow the journey of these great kids through the lens of Uncle Joe!

So, now that you know a bit more about Joe, think about who or what inspires you. Is it a person, a group, a community event or tradition? I can’t wait to tell the stories!

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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