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  • Tara Crutchfield

Pace Center for Girls

Pace Center for Girls’ mission is to provide girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training, and advocacy. The organization is guided by nine values and principles: Honor the female spirit; Focus on strengths; Act with integrity and positive intent; Embrace growth and change; Value the wisdom of time; Exhibit courage; Seek excellence; Create partnerships; and Invest in the future.

This mission statement and guiding values drew Pace Center for Girls of Polk Executive Director Ellen Katzman, ACSW, to the organization in 2016. “I learn from them every day,” Katzman said of her Pace girls. “I learn from them that it’s not easy to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes.”

Pace Center for Girls of Polk and Pasco Executive Director Ellen Katzman, ACSW

Katzman, also the executive director for Pace’s Pasco Center, earned a B.S. in criminal justice from Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences, a master’s degree in social work from Indiana University School of Social Work, and is a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW). Katzman’s career focus has been community organization, planning, and management, and she’s been in the non-profit sector for over 40 years. “I have loved, and still love, every minute of it,” she said. 

Perhaps Katzman’s fire to change lives was lit by the women who inspired her. She named former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir – the first woman to hold that post – as an influential figure growing up. “She made a difference, and she made a difference being female,” reflected Katzman, who is arguably doing the same. “I also come from a line of strong women in my family, and I think I’ve had really good role models.”


Founder Vicki Burke launched Pace with ten girls in Jacksonville, Florida. “Vicki had an idea, rooted in facts, that girls were entering the juvenile justice system as a response to delinquent behavior often caused by trauma.” Between 1989 and 1998, Pace opened 13 new locations in Florida. The organization has since expanded into 23 communities across the Sunshine State, Georgia, and South Carolina. Since serving those first ten girls in 1985, the program has cared for over 40,000 girls and young women – over 3,000 each year.

Pace Center for Girls of Polk County opened its doors in 2001 and has served more than 1,500 girls through its academic Day Program and Pace Reach therapy program.

The Day Program provides year-round education, counseling, and life skills training for middle and high-school-aged girls. Pace Polk served 126 girls through their day program in 2022, with enrollees seeing marked improvement academically and socially and re-engaging in their communities.

In 2009, Pace piloted its Reach Counseling Program, providing services to girls outside their Centers. In partnership with local schools, community organizations, and court systems, the Reach Program offers social, emotional, and behavioral health and support services for girls ages 11-17 and their families. Seventeen Reach locations have been established across Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Last year 55 girls were served through Pace Center for Girls of Polk County’s Reach Program.


“We’re an evidence-based organization,” Katzman said. The organization offers small in-person classes; individual academic planning and support; personal guidance, counseling, and goal planning; and career and college preparation. “You’ll see how kids improve academically, [...] how they’re engaged in their own home life and school.”

These results are observable through statistics collected by the non-profit. For instance, 9 in 10 girls were failing school six months before attending the Pace Day Program in Polk County. Nine in 10 girls improved academically, measured by Florida STAR testing, after attending Pace.

A measurable testament to their Reach Program, 7 in 10 girls were feeling sad or hopeless, including thoughts of self-harm before attending Pace Polk, with 8 in 10 exhibiting improved healthy social relationships with peers and family members after time spent in the program. The proof is in the pudding at Pace – or on their Board of Directors, rather. Pace Polk alumnus Jasmine Decelle, owner of Jasmine Decelle Branding & Design, serves as the board’s secretary.

Last year the impact of Pace rippled far beyond the southeast United States. Pace President and CEO Mary Marx wrote in a letter published in the organization’s 2022 Impact Report, “This year marked the first global application of our approach, partnering with IREX through a Community Collaboration Impact Grant sponsored by the U.S. Department of State to share our model with girls in Bhutan.” 


Pace approaches its mission to support and equip girls through three pillars: gender-responsive, strength-based, and trauma-informed. According to Katzman, potential enrollees meet with an intake counselor for an interview. To be accepted into the program, a girl must have at least three risk factors. These could include truancy, incarcerated parents, physical or mental abuse, or sex trafficking. “Most of our kids are at six or seven [risk factors] – that’s overwhelming,” she said. “Needless to say, they’re unsettled, and a lot of them don’t want to be in an all-girls school.”

But, that all-girl environment, especially one that is trauma-informed, is to their benefit, says Katzman. She evoked founder Vicki Burke. “She saw boys and girls going through the system and realized they needed to be treated separately. They learn differently. Girls that have been traumatized learn much differently than boys and much differently than girls who haven’t gone through trauma,” Katzman said. Pace Center for Girls “creates an environment that responds to the needs of the girls,” according to their website, “so they can feel safe to develop meaningful and trusting relationships and embrace their capability, strength, and autonomy.”

The Pace Day Program, driven by its three pillars, operates year-round. Katzman says the job isn’t always easy, but it is rewarding. “There’s not a day that goes by that you don’t realize you’re changing the trajectory of these young women’s lives,” she said. “Today’s young women in our program are tomorrow’s moms, so this trajectory goes on and on and on.”

Girls are provided breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday and take regular academic classes in smaller class sizes (14 students per teacher) following the Polk County School System curriculum at Pace. Where the organization differs from public school is unfettered access to social services – an imperative for girls who have endured trauma. This department is headed up by Social Services Manager Michelle Brown, who oversees a team of counselors and therapists. The girls can speak with a counselor as often as they need. The Center offers a “May I see you” form that girls can fill out to meet with someone promptly. Katzman noted how access to these resources affects students as they progress at Pace. “They start to open up, to articulate, to self-advocate. They start to have social skills, peer skills – getting along with others,” she said.

Students presenting risk factors who don’t require extra academic help can be referred by guidance counselors, teachers, and school staff to join the Reach Program at participating Polk County schools. Pace provides a licensed mental health therapist in these schools to further support local girls.

When Katzman first took charge seven years ago, she wanted to get to know each of the girls. She decided to sit in on weekly Care Reviews, in which staff, teachers, and counselors meet to discuss a student’s progress. Not ten minutes into her first Care Review, it struck the 40-year non-profit veteran, “The staff that have chosen this, to work here, it’s got to be in their DNA. It’s hard, it’s challenging, it’s difficult – but it’s so rewarding. They get to see the fruits of their labor.” Those fruits manifest in higher grades, happier days, and brighter futures.

Support for Pace girls is comprehensive. Beyond grades and therapy – it’s life-changing. Organization leaders and staff work diligently for holistic growth in their girls. President and CEO Mary Marx wrote in that same 2022 Impact Report letter, “Our work and the future of our girls remains grounded in celebrating not only empowerment, but real, lived power. Our girls must not only benefit from policies but also use their voices and lived experiences to design those policies. In 2022, our advocacy work gave young people the ability to have their record expunged, removing a substantial barrier to college admission and employment for some 26,000 Florida youth.”


One thriving Pace girl is 16-year-old Sandra. The high school junior has been attending Pace Center for Girls of Polk County for nearly a year and has found refuge at the Center. “Pace has helped me a lot, just learning how to self-advocate and finding my voice,” she said. “I struggled a lot with my self-worth before I came here, and I can honestly say it’s improved and helped me achieve a lot of my goals.”

The women Sandra most admires and who have supported her are her mother and her Pace Spirited Girls teacher, Michelle Taylor. “She looks after me a lot and notices when I’m having a bad day,” said Sandra. Asked what she liked about attending Pace, she noted, “I love the environment, the people, it’s open, everyone’s warm. No one’s shut off. You don’t feel out of place. You feel like you belong here.”


Once a year, Pace Polk sends two girls to Tallahassee for Pace Day at the Capitol. Sandra earned the coveted spot, an incentive for excelling socially and academically, and will be attending this year, where she’ll have the opportunity to meet legislators and other Pace girls from across the state.

Executive Director Ellen Katzman described Sandra as sweet, articulate, compassionate, and a model student. “Every girl that comes here comes with challenges. We call them ‘at-risk factors.’ They are obstacles in the young women’s lives, and they have to overcome them. [Sandra] is strong – she’s resilient, and in overcoming those, she’s learned to have her own voice, to advocate for herself,” Katzman raved. “When she leaves here, I have all the confidence in the world that this child is going to be an incredible young woman. She’s going to make her own path, her own future.”

The executive director noted that she most admired Sandra's inner strength and adoption of self-advocacy, something Pace empowers all girls to do. “When there’s someone like Sandra who grasps it so easily and well – it was there all time, we just helped bring it out.”

Sandra, who spoke with the poise and self-assuredness of a young woman destined for success, beamed from within. In the future, she hopes to shine that light on others as a substance abuse counselor, helping people with addictions better their lives.


Those interested in supporting Pace Center for Girls can volunteer or make monetary, supply, and clothing donations. Consider involvement in committees, board membership, and events, like their upcoming Ten Story Challenge on May 5, 2023. The annual peer-to-peer fundraising event takes place at the Lakeland Electric building, where community members raise a minimum of $500 to rappel from the towering structure.

Pace Center for Girls transcends the current day and the current girls they serve. The program blazes paths for generations of girls to grow into women of integrity and self-worth, ascending their circumstances to claim the inherent, inalienable power they each possess. As Pace Center for Girls, Polk Board of Directors Co-Chair, Lakeland Electric’s Interim General Manager Mike Beckham wrote, “Pace Polk provides a safe space where girls feel like they matter. […] The staff focuses on positive affirmation and advocacy to build empowered women with strong voices ready to face the future. Our community is fortunate to have an organization of this caliber to support our youth.”

Photographs by Amy Sexson

Pace Center for Girls of Polk County

213 Tyler Ave, Lakeland, FL

(863) 688-5596

FB: Pace Center for Girls

IG @pacecenterforgirls


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