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Bonita & Estero Magazine

Once a Pace Girl, Always a Pace Girl

Mar 08, 2023 08:00AM ● By Noelani Mathews

Pace ’s annual Grande Dames Tea is an opportunity to embrace the powerful female spirit and provide Pace girls a chance to learn from Southwest Florida’s most revered women. Photo courtesy of Pace Center for Girls, Lee

Each year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declares March as Believing in Girls Month—a time to recognize the importance of young women as they become the female leaders of tomorrow. For 16 years, Pace Center for Girls in Fort Myers has created a safe space for girls who have faced tremendous obstacles so they can feel empowered to transform their lives for the better.
“Pace taught me that if I believe in myself, anything is possible,” says Destiny, a 2022 graduate of Pace Lee.
“I learned that it’s OK to cry and talk about your feelings—it only makes you stronger,” says another graduate, Alexis.
Pace Lee has been pivotal in the lives of countless young women. Girls referred to Pace are often struggling with school, histories of abuse, unhealthy relationships, or mental and behavioral health factors. Facing the pressures of life, those who enroll in the program receive academic and counseling services to help them see their full potential and grow into strong, confident young women.

Since opening in 2007, Pace Lee has served more than 1,000 girls throughout Lee County through its academic Day Program and Pace Reach programs. Photos courtesy of Pace Center for Girls, Lee

“Our girls’ stories are the driving force to continue to take much-needed steps to support young women in Lee County and beyond,” says Jennifer Cellitti, executive director of Pace Center for Girls, Lee. “All girls and young women, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, should be uniquely cared for, supported, and encouraged to become the best versions of
themselves through a path of healing and recovery.”
Pace Lee opened in 2007, after Lee County Judge James Seals noticed an alarming rise in female crimes coming through juvenile court. Hearing about Pace’s impact in Jacksonville, he brought an initiative before a group of female community leaders to open a center in Fort Myers.
One of those influential women was Gail Markham, founding partner for Markham Norton Mosteller Wright & Company, who became the founding board chair of Pace Lee. Sexually abused by her father from the age of 4, Markham shared her own traumatic childhood as a voice to gain support for the new center.
“People were always shocked to hear my story because I didn’t really talk about it,” says Markham. “We touched a lot of raw nerves because everyone seemed to know somebody that has been abused. The community really came together, and the rest is history.”
Bringing mentorship, guidance, and hope, the program has since achieved remarkable
results with more than 1,000 at-promise young women finding their paths to success. Aligning with the public school district, the center’s curriculum includes education, counseling, relationship building, and career planning to help students thrive.
According to the Women’s Prison Association, the number of women in state prisons in the U.S. has increased by 834 percent over the past four decades, more than twice the rate of men. Research shows 86 percent of women in jail report sexual violence prior to arrest.
With gender-responsive, trauma-informed programs, women can avoid incarceration and develop skills to become confident, productive members of society. After leaving Pace:
•100 percent improved academically.
•96 percent had no involvement with the juvenile justice system within one year after Pace.
•89 percent were in school or employed.
This year, Pace Lee is expanding its Reach Therapy Program services, providing social, emotional, and mental health counseling for girls and their families outside the center. With the community’s support, Pace Lee will be a beacon of hope for more girls in Southwest Florida.
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Noelani Mathews is a writer, creator, and storyteller raised in the Peach State, who now calls the Sunshine State home.