ST. PETERSBURG — The lobby of the St. Petersburg Marriott was full of poised young women Tuesday, hobnobbing with judges and state senators, and addressing some of Pinellas County’s key political players by name.
Not long ago, though, the 12- to 18-year-old girls of Pinellas County’s PACE Center for Girls were on a path many feared would land them in jail. The organization celebrated its 17th anniversary Tuesday with a fundraiser to help expand the program, the only one of its kind for at-risk teenage girls in Pinellas County.
There’s a pressing need for financial donations to fill a 30-percent gap — about $250,000 — in the program’s budget but also people to become mentors and volunteers, said Executive Director Sally Zeh.
“The girls have so many risk factors coming in and so many burdens that I think adults would just collapse under the pressure,” Zeh said. “But every day I come to work I see miracles.”
A majority of the 3,000 girls that have filtered through the PACE Center since its inception in 1997 were living at or below the poverty level and were sexually or physically abused, Zeh said. Others struggle with drug addiction, depression, homelessness and difficult home situations.
Yet statistics show that as more girls enter the PACE system, more are also graduating high school. Female high school graduation rates in Pinellas County have slowly grown from 70 percent in the 2010-2011 school year to 77.5 percent in 2011-2012, the latest data available.
PACE has helped, but there is still much work to be done, especially with minority students and those living in poverty, Zeh said. Only 64 percent of black females in the county graduate high school, compared to 82 percent for white female students and 86 percent for Asian girls.
PACE has become an essential resource for the county, and girls who find themselves in the juvenile justice system are often mandated to attend their courses, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. Girls can live at the Pinellas Park center free of charge for as long as a year, attend classes with certified teachers, make up missing school credits and participate in community service projects. The staff of 17 also includes nurses and counselors that help girls overcome mental illness, drug addiction, obesity and other diseases that come from living in a broken home.
“And it does help that boys aren’t around,”said 17-year-old Kayla Corretjer, who hopes to use her time at PACE to catch up on her credits and graduate with her class at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg.
Boys are one of the biggest distractions that lead to young girls getting in trouble, causing many to “do things they wouldn’t normally do at the behest of their boyfriends,” said Sally Parks, the former county commissioner and School Board member who started the Pinellas chapter of PACE. About 55 girls are currently enrolled in PACE, but there are countless others who “fly under the radar” each year while their male counterparts receive specialized attention, particularly in the juvenile justice system, she said.