Sometimes, you get so far behind that catching up seems impossible.
After switching schools and failing two grades, Tori was close to giving up.
When she should have been starting eighth grade, she was still trying to finish the sixth. That was when her mom took her to PACE.
“When you first come here, I know every single girl feels like there’s nothing else to do,” Tori said. “There’s no way out. There’s no way to get this done. They feel like their life is ruined. And PACE just reminds you that your life is still gonna go on and you can make something better of yourself.”
Since coming to PACE in March 2013, she has caught up to the seventh grade and will start high school next year with her class. The support from the staff and other girls at PACE have helped her to persevere.
“The encouragement is the thing that gets me through it the most,” she said. “I believe in myself, and everyone around me — literally everyone in this building — believes in me also. I just picked up the pace and got my work done.”
PACE has been helping girls like Tori for 16 years in Gainesville. PACE provides academic and counseling services to girls ages 12 to 17 with at least three out of five risk factors for entering the juvenile justice system. These include poverty, truancy, family members in the justice system and bullying. Additionally, 90 percent of the girls in PACE have been expelled or suspended.
Girls can come to PACE for 15 months for an opportunity to turn their lives around. The staff at PACE determines what is hindering a girl’s academic success and helps her catch up academically and develop the skills needed to return to public education.
The girls come to school year-round and always have access to the counseling staff. However, all involved with PACE make themselves available as mentors and friends.
“The girls always have someone to talk to,” PACE Center for Girls Executive Director Kathie Southwick said. “Our office coordinator will be helping a girl crying in the front room while taking calls in-between. We try to develop relationships because that’s how girls grow and change.”
The challenges a PACE girl faces academically are often nothing compared to the circumstances at home. Many girls come from broken homes with absent parents, parents who work three jobs or parents who have served time in the justice system. At least 66 percent of the girls in PACE in Alachua have a parent or sibling who is incarcerated or on probation.
Because of this, PACE gets to know each girl holistically. They know when a girl needs extra help. They build strong relationships with the girls and their families and help them to grow closer together.
“We become like family,” Southwick said. “Every year at Christmas, I have the girls write what they love about the staff and often its, ‘She’s just like a mother to me’ or ‘He’s like the father I never had.’”
Southwick said she has seen hundreds of girls come back with their diplomas and go on to finish college. Before the program, many of the girls never thought a degree was possible, but PACE helped them to recognize their own capabilities.
“It’s our job to find that part of each girl that is lovable,” Southwick said. “They have so many strengths and we help them build on those. A lot of them have had to grow up too fast and these relationships make them feel important and loved. We treat every girl as we would want our own daughter to be treated to create an encouraging and loving environment for girls who have given up on themselves.
PACE Center for Girls has 18 centers statewide and has served more than 25,000 girls since 1985, when it was started in the back of a church.
The agency is currently going through a rigorous three-year study of the PACE model’s effectiveness and cost benefit over a long period of time. After the study is complete, PACE will be the only gender responsive program in the country with proven results. The knowledge gathered can be taken to scale to reach more girls across the country.
“Once a PACE girl, always a PACE girl,” Southwick said. “A girl can come back 10 years later — if she needs counseling or help getting into college we can help with that.”
Raising funds for the PACE Center of Alachua gives the center a better opportunity to help out girls in need. Southwick said she has girls come to her who don’t have food or need assistance buying something as simple as a bra. However, you can’t put a price tag on it, she said.
“We save girls’ lives,” she said. “I’ve had so many girls say that they literally would not be here on the earth. We have girls who are suicidal and who have lost hope. We save lives and change the course of their lives and the family’s lives and their generation.”