Supporting girls who are overcoming trauma while empowering them to embrace the future.
The rise of social media influence has given equal rise to serious social issues nationwide, such as sexual abuse and mental health. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five children ages 13 to 18 have or will have a serious mental illness. And one in four girls will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
At PACE Center for Girls Alachua, staff members continue to support young women who have experienced both physical and mental trauma, through education and mental health services. For the past 20 years, PACE has worked closely with the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Education to serve more than 100 girls a year in the Gainesville community.
“PACE ensures that young women have a better future,” said Natalya Bannister, executive director of PACE Alachua. “We are working very, very hard to continue to break the cycle of poverty and help girls through their trauma, depression, anxiety and many things that keep a girl from being successful.”
As a fully functioning school and social service center, PACE offers a multitude of resources to girls in need, especially those who are likely to be placed into the juvenile justice system. The center has year-round admissions with the program taking up to two years to complete. Girls who enter the program can range from 12 to 18 years old.
“Our goal is to get them back on track,” Bannister said. “Most of our girls do acclimate successfully, but some do need more time.”
If a girl shows signs of a hard transition back into the public school system, then she is welcome to return to the PACE program, Bannister said.
“There’s no way we could turn away girls, especially when they are in their most traumatic parts of their lives,” she said. “Our motto is once a PACE girl, always a PACE girl.”
PACE differs from surrounding schools in Alachua County with classroom sizes and individualized curriculum that focuses on preparing girls for the future. One of these classes is called Spirited Girls.
“Spirited Girls is what I like to call our Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll class,” Bannister said. “They learn everything from balancing a checkbook to healthy relationships to practicing safe sex.”
Each classroom at PACE holds only 14 girls at a time to ensure each student gets one-on-one interaction with teachers. With smaller class sizes and resources like mental health counselors available on site, more girls are graduating on time.
“We have a lot of first-generation high school graduates, and I think that speaks volumes to the community because that is breaking the cycle of poverty,” Bannister said.
Whether it’s breakfast, uniforms or counseling sessions, all of the services at the PACE center are 100 percent free. With free-of-charge services, PACE relies heavily on donations and volunteers to help offset the cost of serving each girl.
“We have waiting lists, so the more that people support us, the more girls we can serve throughout the year,” Bannister said.
The opening of a new wing in January, the Butterfly Center, became a reality because of donations.
“We didn’t have a kitchen or a space to house all of our girls so that they could have lunch together,” Bannister said. “Now we have this large space where our girls are now doing dance or yoga and have more access to food.”
The next goal for the center is to open an on-site clinic where girls can have minor health needs addressed without missing a day of school, Bannister said.
“We have to make sure we are investing in girls and young women so that they can reach their full potential,” she said. “Our mission is to make sure these girls have a second chance at life.”