Finding Their Way

Academic support and counseling through the Pace Center for Girls has helped transform the lives of thousands of young girls and women.

Local girls ages 11 to 17 who are struggling with challenges such as family conflict, poor academic performance or low self-esteem can find a wealth of support and encouragement through the Pace Center for Girls–Marion.

The center, located near the heart of downtown Ocala, is part of a network that includes 21 centers in Florida and one in Georgia. Pace Center for Girls was founded in 1985 with 10 girls and now serves more than 3,000 annually through development of life, health and academic skills.

Pace offers girls counseling, case management and mental health services in partnership with schools, community organizations and court systems. Pace partners include the Department of Juvenile Justice and Department of Education. Through the support of those agencies and fundraising initiatives, all services are free to the girls and their families.

Carole C. Savage, APR, CPRC, is executive director of Pace programs in Marion and Citrus counties.

“Pace provides girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training and advocacy,” she offers. “Our foundational pillars include being a gender-responsive, strengths-based and trauma-informed program with a strong culture of caring, purpose, results and learning. And we are evidence based, which is important in staying in the forefront of our work.”

The program serves girls who have faced trauma, have several risk factors and exhibit a need for help to overcome challenges.

“Girls can be referred by school counselors or others in the school district, by churches, other organizations, families or themselves,” Savage explains. “No girl is ever mandated to attend Pace, it is a choice program.”

“We empower girls to find their strengths, properly advocate for themselves and focus on their future,” she adds. “It’s not easy and it takes a lot of work, but our girls are amazing and full of potential. Many have had to learn to be resilient at young ages, so with the support we provide they are able to move forward. We also work closely with the families because we know the most successful efforts are those surrounding the girl from our center and at her home.”

The Pace Reach program provides social, emotional and mental health counseling in middle and high schools. In Ocala, therapists at Liberty Middle School and West Port High School work with counseling teams to provide girls with services on campus.

Pace’s core academic classes include science, math, English, social studies and an elective called Spirited Girls!

“Our girls receive regular counseling sessions and we are available by emergency phone 24 hours a day,” Savage points out. “We provide career exploration and guidance, and, through CenterState Bank and Junior Achievement, have provided financial literacy curriculums. Our Growth and Change System provides girls the opportunity to learn about themselves, their relationships with family, friends and others, and making good choices. Our Girls Leadership Council provides opportunities for girls to help make decisions within the center and to represent it in the community.”

She says the girls are given opportunities to participate in community service projects, such as making bookmarks thanking veterans for their service and handing them out at the annual Veterans Day ceremony, visiting assisted living facilities to sing holiday songs and give manicures, and making plastic mats from grocery bags for the homeless. They currently are working on a COVID-19 supply kit for the elderly through a State Farm grant and the Angie Lewis State Farm office in Ocala.

“We have a strong philosophy that once a Pace girl, always a Pace girl. We keep in close contact for the year following a girl’s transition from our center and continue to communicate,” Savage shares. “Anytime a Pace girl returns to our center, we will make time for her, even if she needs a counseling session and she’s in her 20s. We’ve had girls bring their children in and girls who just wanted to say hello.”

She says many girls have said they were lost until they found Pace and some didn’t think they would have survived had it not been for the organization.

“I’ve seen girls who were determined to beat their odds and whose backgrounds were really rough turn into amazing business owners and managers and teachers. I’m constantly seeing girls in the community who tell me how much they appreciate what Pace did for them,” she declares. “Some will even say they recognize now that they were tough cases back in their teen years and how grateful they are that we didn’t give up on them. I get a lot of hugs.”

We had the opportunity to meet three inspiring Pace-Marion alumnae.

Jocelyn “Casey” James

James was born and raised in Ocala and says her family’s roots run deep in the Sunshine State.

“My parents were born in Ocala and my grandparents were raised in Florida from a young age,” she offers. “My children are the fourth generation raised here.”

James was involved with the Pace Center for Girls in Ocala for one year during high school.

“Being at Pace helped me reconnect with my interests and creativity,” she says. “I loved that Pace encouraged us to think hard about decisions and talk about them, to dig deep into what was special in our lives and find gratitude in the day-to-day. These are skills I still use to this day.”

Now, James is the owner of CenterState Bookkeeping, a cloud-based, full-service firm.

“We manage our clients’ bookkeeping needs through software such as QuickBooks. We are based out of Ocala but can work virtually with anyone,” she explains. “Some of the services we provide include bookkeeping, invoicing, bill paying and payroll.”

She says Pace was instrumental in her learning to encourage other girls and women.

“I learned by watching and listening to how the staff at Pace encouraged the girls on bad days or how they listened with full attention to what I was saying,” she recalls. “I never got that in traditional school.”

In her spare time, James volunteers with Just Between Friends Ocala, a children’s consignment sale that happens twice a year, including the recent event held at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion. On the day of her photo shoot for Ocala Style, she had a vehicle filled with unsold items that were going to help children in the region.

“I love that consigners can choose to donate unsold items to charity,” James explains. “This year we donated all the items to Kids Central, which serves the foster care system in six Central Florida counties. We were able to donate hundreds of items after our spring sale and hope to do that again in the fall.”

Destiny Mitchell

Mitchell also was born and raised in Ocala. She now is living in Okinawa, Japan, with her husband Frankie Mitchell, a fellow Ocalan who is stationed there with the U.S. Marine Corps, and their young son.

Mitchell came to Pace while in middle school and was involved in their programming for two years.

“Pace is a really great place filled with a team of people who are prepared to help guide young girls,” she offers. “At Pace you take your normal core classes like any other school. The class sizes are smaller than public school, but that helps with focusing and the educators being able to individually assist each girl.”

She recalls it “was pleasant to be in a place that not only wanted me to do my best academically, but they cared about my mental health and decisions, and offered therapeutic support. I participated in group counseling as well as one-on-one counseling.”

“I learned I am not what people say I am, and I am not a product of my environment,” she offers. “I am as good as I perceive myself to be. I knew I could not get absorbed in things that were taking place around me but, instead, overcome them.”

Mitchell graduated from North Marion High School, attended the College of Central Florida and then transferred to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, from which she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 2017.

“I was unsure about pursuing psychology as my undergraduate degree, but it was my former Pace counselor who helped me with that decision—years later, I was in college and Pace was still assisting me,” she enthuses.

After graduating from college, Mitchell moved to California and worked at an all-girl’s group home as a residential counselor assisting at-risk youth.

“The group home allowed me to work directly with the girls and mentor them,” she shares. “I am unable to do that type of work currently, so I decided to pursue my master’s in psychology. When my family and I return stateside, I hope to continue assisting youth, specifically at-risk youth.”

Dr. Sriya Bhattacharyya

Bhattacharyya was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and raised in Littleton, Colorado. She came to Ocala at age 11, when her parents were separated and her father accepted a job in the area. She shuttled between Florida and Colorado for two years, then settled in Ocala.

“That’s when I found Pace,” she explains. “My parents got divorced and there was a lot of turmoil in my family. It was very hard for me to focus in school and I ended up falling behind. I had a very hard time adjusting and I was very depressed. There was a lot of ongoing chaos in my family and I had very little support.”

She says the Pace model of counseling and academics was very helpful.

“They provided a lot of emotional support, as well as ongoing belief in me in a way that I wasn’t getting. That allowed me to focus on making academic progress,” she affirms. “After Pace, a high school teacher suggested I dual enroll in college. I dual enrolled at what was then Central Florida Community College (now the College of Central Florida) and connected to a couple of professors, Doug Oswald and Connie Tice, who were incredibly supportive and encouraging. I got straight A’s and joined the debate team.”

She later transferred to the University of Florida and became involved with research and volunteer work with arts and medicine, a local crisis center and the national suicide hotline.

“I was building a new path for myself,” she says. “Then I took a couple of years off and worked in Rwanda, Congo, India, Nepal and Turkey, learning about new cultures and engaging in different international projects. A mentor at UF suggested I apply to graduate school. I received a diversity fellowship to Boston College, which gave me a full ride to complete my Ph.D. in psychology. I also got certificates in human rights and international justice and traumatic stress studies. I focused on how I might be a part of changing the world and the environment that initially brought me so much harm when I was younger.”

Bhattacharyya now lives in New York City and is a psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center, which is part of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. She also is an adjunct teacher at Columbia University and is involved in advocacy work with the United Nations.

“I think it’s our responsibility as adults with power and privilege to use that to help others who are struggling,” she states. “Believe in the people around you, the young women, trans[gender] youth, men, people of color, and support them and offer whatever help you can. Give up the little piece of the pie that you have so someone else can have some. Amazing things can happen after that.”

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