The PACE Center for Girls of Alachua County Gives Girls a Fighting Chance at Life

The PACE Center for Girls of Alachua County is committed to wholeheartedly recognizing and validating every single aspect of a girl’s life so she can grow and flourish as the person she was always meant to be.

Natalya Bannister, executive director of PACE Alachua, has been working at the organization for five years. The PACE branch in Alachua originally began in 1998. It began because Florida was arresting more girls than any other state in the country and Gainesville was experiencing that, she said. Around that time, girls were getting arrested for a lot of nonviolent crimes. They found the girls who were getting in trouble or failing school were getting lost in the juvenile justice system. 

The system was originally designed for boys and it didn’t account for the girl’s gender-responsive needs, she said. She said many girls experienced trauma and were suffering from the consequences of poverty — such as being molested, physically abused or malnourished — and needed counseling and support, rather than going to jail. The girls were stuck in a generational cycle, and the point of PACE Alachua was to break it, so the girls had “a fighting chance at life,” Bannister said. 

Bannister said PACE Alachua is a holistic program. The organization is a school and social service center all-in-one and they assign a mental health counselor to each girl. The counseling helps the girls work through their trauma so they can be successful in the classroom. 

“It sometimes takes months to even see a girl smile,” she said. “So, when she starts finding who she is, it’s really really amazing. I think that’s the best part of PACE, it’s watching the girls transform from whatever their circumstance was to who they really are meant to be.”

The organization serves middle and high school girls, and the average age of a girl at PACE Alachua is 16 years old. Over the last five years, they’ve doubled the number of girls they serve. They serve on average about 63 girls a month, she said. According to Bannister, they’ve expanded their campus to fit the additional girls. PACE Alachua has added more programs — such as yoga, health programs and an afterschool program. They currently are working on building a clinic so girls can get help for minor health issues and miss less school.

The organization is strength-based. So, they help girls who have never heard that they do anything well. They found out what they do well and build the girls’ confidence to help them feel good about themselves, she said.

“We find out what that is, and give her every opportunity to do it,” she said.

Bannister said working with the girls is her purpose. She has always worked with youth since her time at the University of Florida and with The Boys and Girls Club. She was applying to law school but working with the children who were impoverished completely changed her life. Once she started volunteering with the kids, she couldn’t stop thinking about them every day, she said.

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She knew she needed to work in a non-profit when one of the children came up to her and said “You go to UF? Brown people don’t go to college.” She sat her down and told her that she could go to college, too.

Her main goal when she got her position as executive director was to get more girls to be a part of their program. She worked to counteract the stigmas and stereotypes they had about PACE Alachua — like it was a school for pregnant or bad girls — to be able to reach and help more people. 

In reality, some of the girls at PACE Alachua grew up without parents, did not know where their next meal would be coming from or dealt with molestation in their past and never had anyone believe them, she said. 

All of the services are free, and it even costs less for taxpayers for girls to be a part of PACE Alachua than being in the juvenile justice system. Alachua Pace raises money through fundraising and are funded partially by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and the Florida Department of Education. The program is dependent on donations from the community, she said. They only get funded for 53 girls a year and they serve about 12 girls over that number each year. The average cost to serve a girl at PACE Alachua is about $22,000 a year. 

 According to Bannister, the best way to donate is to do so monetarily because it gets girls off their waiting list to be a part of the program. They also have volunteering options for every interest — such as marketing, outreach, fundraising and education — and have a strong relationship with the counseling department at the University of Florida. They also have volunteers who are retirees or professionals who help support the girls, she said. She said people can also donate to a point store that help the girls get gifts as incentives for doing well throughout the day. The gifts are based upon donations they get.

 Bannister said it’s crucial to give girls a second chance at life and to have the whole community’s support.

“You’re investing in our future mothers and our next generation,” she said. “If there’s any message I want to spread, it’s that. Girls need a fighting chance.”

April Ponder, academic manager, is in charge of the day to day operations of the academic program at PACE Alachua. She supervises the teachers, oversees the curriculum, grading, testing, professional development and many other things. She has been with PACE Alachua for a little over three years. 

She was drawn to PACE Alachua because she has always had a niche for working with youth — especially the most vulnerable youth and at-risk populations. She was a school psychologist for several years before taking this position. Her passions are education and psychology. In addition, she believes in its mission, ability to make change with the girls it serves and the family-like atmosphere of the center.

“I remember when I first came for a tour, as soon as I walked in, I felt this engulfing sense of family, caring and love,” she said. 

She said the work they do is incredibly challenging, but the impact it has on the girls is far more rewarding. She enjoys the fast-paced aspect of PACE Alachua. She feels like she is always learning and always growing in her role in trying to move her staff and the girls forward. 

She also loves having such close relationships with the girls. She said they have a phrase that says, “once a PACE girl, always a PACE girl.” When the girls leave their program they always come back and they all can see their transformation. 

She said she agrees that there is often a perception that PACE girls are bad, but that this isn’t the case at all. She said the girls there are a victim of things beyond their control. The community and school system only see the girls acting out, but don’t really understand why the girls are doing so. PACE Alachua takes the time to figure out why the girls are struggling and help them become the women they’re meant to be, she said.

She said every day the girls inspire her. She said some of their stories are unimaginable and she said the girls are so strong and it’s inspiring to see them be able to rise about their circumstances and trauma.

“The girls almost save our lives more than we save theirs in a sense,” she said. 

Jessica Bone, transition services manager, works with the girls to provide therapeutic services and manages both the intake program transition program. She helps bring girls into the program and follows them for one year after they leave the program.

She’s been working with PACE Alachua for a little over six years. She got involved because of the organization’s mission. She believes in helping girls in our community and investing in young women. PACE Alachua really values social services, which people don’t see in a school setting very often, she said. They have the opportunity to provide mental health counseling and therapeutic services unlike in a lot of school counselor settings. 

She loves the culture of PACE Alachua. She never predicted she would have a leadership role as a counselor but enjoys how the new role challenges her. 

“The girls are what makes PACE, PACE,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s the best thing about it.”

She said the most challenging part of her job is finding a balance between being a leader and a counselor. The counselor part of herself could spend 24/7 working with the girls, she said. 

Over the years she’s witnessed so many inspiring things, and each instance has in common that the girls are able to truly find their voice and own who they are. A few years ago, she had a girl who suffered from crippling anxiety to the point that she often couldn’t even go to school because she felt too anxious. A year later, she gave a speech to 500 adults about her story. 

“There’s these little moments and there are these bigger scale ones that all add up to just seeing the girls truly become who they’re meant to be,” she said.