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Music, Food, and Community: How Pace Center for Girls Celebrates Caribbean-American Heritage Month

June is Caribbean-American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Caribbean-American identity. Since the United States’ founding, Caribbean Americans have enriched our country, sharing history, art, music, and more.

Rose Anderson is the Career and College Readiness Coordinator at Pace Broward. Her Caribbean-British heritage is incorporated and celebrated throughout her entire department at Pace.

She shared, “I celebrate my heritage every day I get a chance to breathe. I love and celebrate the fact that I come from a culture that exudes various genres of music, artforms, clothing, food and deep-rooted history. My parents are my heroes and my inspiration and have made me into the person I am today. I listen intently and connect to their stories, proverbs and ancestral anecdotes that continue to inspire me to be true to my legacy and I unashamedly celebrate that I am a Jamaican-British-American human being.”

For Pace Leon Associate Executive Director, Kristel Avilus, educating others about her Jamaican culture goes hand in hand with celebrating her heritage. From language to food to art, Kristel is proud to center her Jamaican identity at work. Kristel says: “I announce my Jamaican heritage by having Jamaican crafts, collectibles, books, and crafts, utilizing them in conversations with coworkers, donors, community partners and girls.” These physical objects are a powerful reminder of her pride in her identity.

Carley Vasquez, a counselor at Pace Leon, reflects: “I am intentional about celebrating my Puerto Rican and Colombian culture through food and music. Some of my favorite foods to enjoy are arepas con queso and pandebono.” At Pace Leon, girls and staff celebrated Caribbean-American Heritage Month through a catered lunch from a Haitian restaurant, Port 509.

Carley enjoys listening to Bad Bunny and Kali Uchis, Puerto Rican and Colombian artists, and Kristel listens to reggae and calypso music.

For Tina Swaby, a math teacher at Pace Broward, music is all about the community. Tina enjoys attending music and food festivals year-round, noting: “It is always an awesome experience to come together as a people from different countries and backgrounds to celebrate our oneness as Caribbean-Americans as well as offer the same experience to first timers!”

Pace serves thousands of girls from different cultural heritages across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. We are proud to create a safe and inclusive environment that recognizes and celebrates girls and team members for their rich heritages.


The best is yet to come: how two girls from Pace Broward will thrive after graduation.

Emily, a senior at Pace Broward, hadn’t attended school in two months before coming to Pace. Toni, also a senior at Pace Broward, reflects that “Pace literally turned my life around.” From immediate counseling services to one-on-one educational support, Pace provides a holistic support system for girls to help them become strong, compassionate, and successful women.

Emily, now on her second to last day of high school, recognizes that Pace “changed my mindset on how I see things. I wasn’t an optimist – I wasn’t able to see the positive side of things. Being here is a weird change, honestly, coming from a place that’s not supportive… everybody [at Pace] wants to be here and help the students.”

Inspired by her Pace Reach therapist, Emily will begin studying Psychology at Broward College in June to one day become a therapist herself. Having lost someone very close to her by suicide, she hopes “maybe I can help people and change the outcome so it’s not devastating to the person, the family, and people around them.” Emily’s support team could not be prouder of her for using her experiences to make the world a better place; she’s even receiving a scholarship from Pace to help with her college tuition.

For Toni, a career in cosmetology – much like attending a Pace Center – is a family tradition. She is excited to continue following in her mother’s footsteps by enrolling in cosmetology school after graduation. With her teachers’ help, Toni has been able to research different schools to find the right fit.

While the road to graduation hasn’t been easy, the past five years at Pace have been transformative for Toni. She says: “The whole program helped me a lot with my behavior issues. I love my counselors, because they listen to their girls, they hear them out and advocate for them.”

Graduation at Pace Broward is fast approaching, and Emily and Toni both feel a mixture of anxiety and excitement. The girls are nervous about the changes to come, and the many unknowns that exist in adulthood, but they know they have bright futures ahead. Toni says: “I’m excited because I get to go out in the real world and explore new things,” while Emily shares that she can’t wait to spend her life “doing something I’m actually interested in, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

With graduation upon them, Emily and Toni have sage advice for their younger selves, and for girls like them too. Toni reflects: “I would tell my younger self to never give up on your dreams and keep going.” Emily gratefully acknowledges that “things do change, and it’s not going to stay the same forever, even though it feels like it.”


How Mental Health Counseling Helps Pace Girls Reach Their Potential

Nearly three years ago, Summer Kirk signed up to change lives. In the years since she joined the Pace Pinellas team as a counselor, Summer has served hundreds of girls – providing a steady support system as girls navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, youth mental health crisis, and a regular slew of challenges such as poverty, bullying, and mental health.

A holistic support system is one of the biggest benefits Pace girls gain in counseling. Girls often enroll in Pace in a tough spot – having struggled with their relationships, schoolwork, or mental health. Summer says: “Some of the girls don’t have that person who they can look to for help or guidance or direction. That’s a big piece of counseling – not only mental health tools but providing support, if they ever need anything, or need to talk to somebody.” Having this reliable, compassionate, and trusted presence in their lives empowers girls to be the best versions of themselves, and even when things don’t go to plan, girls know that they always have a supportive place to land.

The past three years – amid a global pandemic – certainly haven’t been easy for middle- and high-school-aged girls. Summer remembers “it was like pulling teeth to get girls to come into school” at the beginning of the pandemic. Social anxiety and depression spread like wildfire, and girls really struggled to re-immerse themselves in their educational and social lives.

Creative thinking from Summer and her peers allowed Pace staff to continue serving girls despite these challenges. From counseling appointments in the parking lot to home visits, Pace staff ensured every girl felt supported. Through counseling, girls learned how to process their life experiences, new coping skills – like how to cope with challenging thoughts and behaviors, and how to manage their emotions. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but Summer is inspired by “the little progress girls make every single day.”

This dedication and innovative thinking makes Summer a truly exceptional counselor, and her colleagues and students aren’t the only ones who think so. This month, the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas honored Summer with the 2023 KidsFirst Cooperman-Bogue Award, an award honoring exceptional social service professionals who consistently put kids first. The Juvenile Welfare Board governs financial investments in organizations that “give children the best opportunities to lead meaningful and purposeful lives.” Summer certainly fits the bill.

This Counseling Awareness Month, we’re grateful for the incredible work all of our counselors do every single day. Not only do counselors teach valuable lessons and provide useful skills – but they change the trajectory of our girls’ lives. Summer says: “Girls enroll in such a hopeless place. Six months to a year later, they’re in such a different spot. So many girls have graduated or gotten to a really good place, and they couldn’t have done it without the support systems at Pace.”


At Pace, our team of dedicated teachers, counselors, therapists, and directors foster safe, supportive, and inclusive environments for our girls to help them reach their goals. Get involved with Pace and check out our current  open positions!  


Inspired By Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and Their Community, Two Georgia Girls Are Making It Clear That They Aren’t Accepting The Status Quo

May 1st is a day for high school seniors across the nation to celebrate their successes and look ahead to their future: National College Signing Day. For Sakiyah and Tatiana, high school seniors in Macon, Georgia, their motivation for success they say, “comes from their community.”

Tatiana, who cites Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson as a source of inspiration, is graduating as the valedictorian of her high school class and will major in Political Science at Howard University in the fall. She hopes to become a Senator and among her many accolades, she is a recipient of the highly selective Bill Gates Scholarship.

Sakiyah will attend Georgia Southern University and is the first person in her family to graduate high school and attend a four-year college. She is in the top 10 of her high school class academically, works more than 30 hours a week and recently was crowned prom princess.

Both girls made it clear that young people are not accepting the status quo. Instead, when they see a problem, they find a solution. Community challenges? They address them. Systemic failure? They study legislation and rewrite the system.

“In Macon, crime is very real. For people my age, you end up dead or you end up in jail,” shared Tatiana. “I joined the law academy my sophomore year of high school by force. I originally wanted to be a doctor. After taking the class I realized I was into politics, and I wanted to help my community.”

The girls reported that they believe the biggest challenge facing high school girls in their community is an inordinate amount of anxiety and stress — much of it centered on “graduating high school and doing well without a lot of support outside of school.”

While college enrollment has fallen overall since the onset of the pandemic, enrollment for young women in 2022 dropped at twice the rate of men. These statistics are alarming, particularly for young women like Tatiana and Sakiyah, for whom a college degree can be a critical tool for a successful future.

Both girls identified additional stressors during their senior year of high school and enrolled themselves in the Pace Reach Program to receive additional counseling services beyond what their mainstream school provides. Kourtney Mikell, the girls’ Pace Reach counselor, emphasized the need to understand the role mental health plays in getting girls to and through college.

“In college, I plan to be enrolled in multiple clubs and organizations like I am now,” said Tatiana, who is a member of Skills USA, DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America), a student ambassador and a member of her high school’s news team. “Ms. Kourtney helped me come up with plans so that whenever I feel overwhelmed, I have a safe place and safe steps to know what to do.”

“Mental health varies. When you recognize you are not okay mentally, you have to accept it within yourself before you can get help,” shared Sakiyah. “Mrs. Kourtney has helped me be more open to things and express my feelings.”

Both girls recognize they have a significant role to play as young leaders — using their voices and talents to make a difference in their families, schools and community. More importantly, they recognize the importance of self-care and prioritizing mental health.

As for what she envisions her community’s future looking like, Tatiana said, “I will advocate for women’s rights until the day I die.”


Embracing Growth and Change

Pace girls come from all backgrounds, but throughout their time at Pace, we teach them to embrace growth and change while working to invest in their futures.  

For many Pace girls, feeling discounted and doubted can be a familiar feeling. Lexi, a freshman at Pace Treasure Coast, knows it too well: “I didn’t feel believed in when people told me that I wasn’t going to make it out from where I came from. But I did everything I could to try and prove them wrong.” Many girls like Lexi come to Pace after experiencing challenges, such as living in poverty, experiencing trauma, and struggling with their mental health.  

Every day, our exceptional team of counselors and therapists work to create safe, inclusive spaces and help girls realize and harness their power.

Amber, Lexi, and Laura 

Amber, a freshman celebrating her one-year anniversary of enrolling at Pace, is proud to be a good listener to her friends, often helping them solve their problems. She remembers: “My friends told me they believed in me because I’m basically their counselor. They believed that I could help them and make them believe in themselves, and that made me believe in myself.” 

Amber isn’t the only one who has felt affirmed by her peers at Pace. Laura, an 8th-grade student, loves when her peers recognize her artistic talent. She says: “Whenever I get to show people [my art], and they complement me about it, I get really happy. I love getting compliments because I’m being recognized for something that most people wouldn’t really think is a big deal, but for me it is.”  

This support for each girl’s individual strengths is at the center of the Pace experience. In Spirited Girls, one of Pace’s signature classes, girls build a monthly affirmation calendar and then read an affirmation each day. Lexi says “It helps boost my confidence. When people put me down, I say ‘I am, I can, and I will.’” 

And this encouragement extends outside of the classroom. Laura shares her gratitude for her counselor, saying: “I really look up to my counselor. Miss Lena is the backbone of this place: She does so much for us.”  

Above all, the lessons girls learn every day at Pace are directly tied to their future ambitions. Amber, whose friends affirm her incredible ability to make them feel heard and seen, wants to be a guidance counselor. Lexi, who is learning to believe in herself, aspires to be a biomedical researcher or a psychiatrist. And Laura, who loves art with her entire being, wants to be an animator.  


The girls and young women Pace supports receive academic instruction and work closely with counselors and therapists trained in gender-responsive and trauma-based therapy. These resources are made available to girls at no cost to them. Know a girl who could benefit from Pace? Learn more and enroll today!