Mikhaela, 17, bops down the hallway of the PACE Center for Girls carrying a green binder and wearing a fuchsia cardigan, skinny jeans and sherbet-colored tennis shoes. More than a fashion statement, her outfit reflects a recent shift in the teen’s attitude towards school and her future, which is now bold and bright. Mikhaela opens her three-ring binder on a conference room table and rattles off the names of 10 cities, from Europe to the Middle East, which have inspired the looks she’s created from donated clothes for the school’s upcoming fashion show.
Mikhaela beams with enthusiasm over her project, but about a year ago high school was a day to day struggle for the teen. PACE, which stands for Pratical, Academic, Cultural Education, is a non-residential delinquency prevention program that serves about 200 girls ages 12 to 17 who are at least one year behind in school and have three or more risk factors, including foster home placement, substance abuse, neglect or low income.
One of the heaviest hitters at PACE Center for Girls in Jacksonville is the organization’s executive director, Renee McQueen, 43, who restores dignity and builds confidence in girls who have endured trauma like rape, physical abuse, homelessness and incarcerated parents. With the help of her staff, McQueen aims to catch students before they become ensnarled in a criminal lifestyle. Since it was founded in Jacksonville 30 years ago, PACE’s statewide network has altered the lives of 35,000 girls through education, mental health counseling and medical care.
“We are the Super Walmart of social services,” says McQueen, from her office, which is lined with educational books such as one titled, “Math Doesn’t Suck.”
The Pensacola native first became passionate about advocacy work as a child in the 4-H club, and has built a 20-year career working with at risk populations.
When the girls arrive at PACE each morning, the day begins with an assembly. Girls award each other with beads for acts of kindness and apologize for slights against each other. Then they spend the rest of the day powering their minds, discussing Socrates and plotting graphs. Positive messages plaster the hallways and classrooms, where students also learn that their current circumstances do not dictate their future.
“Every girl has a voice and a right to use it, to go out into the world and be better,” McQueen says, as the school bell rings. “They have the world ahead of them, but they don’t know it.”
After attending the year-round school for 12 to 18 months, girls transition back to their designated public schools or institutions of higher education, and the work force. According to McQueen, about 90 percent of girls who leave PACE stay out of the criminal justice system for at least a year. The work, however, continues with PACE counselors maintaining contact with alumni for three years or more. With a 1-to-12 teacher-to-student ratio, the fundraising budget runs about $400,000 a year. To raise money, McQueen hosts a luncheon every March, where standout students tell their stories.
Mikhaela, who spoke at last year’s event, now fights her demons with her mind and not her fists as she works toward her goal of studying fashion in college.
“PACE, it gives girls who don’t fit in [anywhere] else somewhere to grow,” she says.
At 12 p.m. on March 26, PACE will be hosting its annual Portraits of PACE Luncheon at the Florida Blue
Conference Center on Gate Parkway. For more information on this fund raising event and the organization, visit pacecenter.org/centers/jacksonville.