Empowering Our Youth to Succeed
When Jakayla Lovett was seven years old, a stray cat plodded into her backyard and lay down to give birth. Jakayla had always been fascinated with babies, so she went out and helped deliver the kittens. Now, just over a decade later, she is putting that fascination to use, studying to be a neonatal nurse at Santa Fe College.
The trajectory from feline midwife to college nursing student was far from straight, however. In her 18 short years, Jakayla has seen an uncommon share of obstacles, including being left by her parents at two months old. She and her twin sister were raised by their grandmother, a woman who Jakayla said “has this type of unique personality that attracts everyone.” Still, with her parents in and out of her life and her grandmother struggling to raise twins, Jakayla began acting out at a young age. She was perpetually in trouble at school and felt a great anger inside. Luckily, she found a bridge over those troubled waters at PACE Center for Girls.
Jakayla came to PACE when she was 13 years old.
“When I started at PACE, I was angry and bitter toward the other girls,” she said. “But, we’d do arts and crafts, and I learned that instead of taking my anger out, that was a way for me to turn it into something passionate, drawing and putting it down on paper. I started changing because I sat down with one of the counselors and had a very deep conversation, and I decided I didn’t want to become like my parents.”
When speaking of her experiences, Jakayla has a fortitude and emotional depth that belie her young age. She attributes much of that to PACE.
“I don’t think I would be the person I am today if I did not come to PACE,” she said. “The sisterhood and the love you get from the staff… it’s amazing. It motivates you, especially if you don’t have that kind of drive and motivation at home. The staff was there for us. They made us feel like if you didn’t have a safe home, you could talk to them about anything. You could look at them like a big sister or another mother figure.”
Jakayla has a unique perspective on PACE’s power to change lives. Her aunt was one of
the first girls at the original program, which was housed in an old skating rink near the Sidney Lanier Center. That familial connection to the program is a testament to PACE’s passion and dedication throughout the years. The center was created to serve at-risk girls from sixth to 12th grade, roughly ages 12 to 17. It functions as an alternative to the classic schooling system, offering the girls a family environment that caters to their needs. Today, the program encompasses seven classrooms with roughly a dozen students each, as well as three full-time counselors and five teachers. And, it always makes room for alumni.
“When I left PACE, I stayed in contact,” Jakayla said. “I think if I didn’t, I would have backtracked into the things I was doing before I went to PACE. I know people who are, like, 30 now, and they still come back. All the staff members remember them. They remember every girl who comes through.”
Not only does she come back to visit, Jakayla also shares her story with the girls who are currently in the program. After graduating high school in 2015 and enrolling in Santa Fe College, she is the
embodiment of the hope PACE offers.
“When I come back and tell my testimony, it touches a lot of the younger girls,” she said. “They can see they’re not the only ones going through things. They see that at least somebody actually made it out. Somebody is coming back who has been through it and sat in the same seat they’re sitting in today. I feel passionate in my soul to come back to tell them, ‘If I could make it, you could make it. Don’t give up. I didn’t give up, and I thank God I didn’t.’”
All across Alachua, there are organizations like PACE that help at-risk youth get their lives back on track, and Jakayla is just one of many success stories. Another important local organization is the Child Advocacy Center, and one such success story is Kristen Grezlik.
Like Jakayla, Kristen has known a lot of hardship in her 18 years. And like Jakayla, she has persevered and overcome. Kristen came to the Child Advocacy Center at 16 years old, a victim of abuse by her brother’s father and a target of bullying at school.
“It was scary because I don’t like talking to people much,” Kristen said of her experience.
The staff at the CAC put her at ease, however, and soon, Kristen was thriving at the center.
“They helped me get back on my feet,” she said. “They would help my family with problems that we had. They’d give me advice on how to deal with things that happened in my past and how to cope with it.”
CAC Director Sherry Kitchens recalled Kristen’s arrival at the center.
“When she first came here, I’m not sure she really wanted to open up,” Kitchens said. “It took us a while to get to know each other. The great thing about the center is we have the flexibility to be here as long as the child needs us to. Week after week, we’d meet, and sometimes we didn’t say much, but all of a sudden one day, she decided, ‘You’re alright,’ and started speaking to me. She hasn’t given up, and I think a lot of young people in her situation would just give up. She’s quite a strong young woman, and she’s got a bright future.”
Kristen is currently realizing part of that bright future at Jacksonville Job Corps, where she is studying to be a certified nursing assistant. She also hopes to pursue her passion for dance by attending art school.
“I want to take care of people and I also love to dance,” Kristen said. “I freestyled a lot, and then people started noticing that I can actually dance.”
The CAC shares many of the same goals as PACE, but it differs in structure. While PACE is a school that also provides therapy and counseling, the CAC is geared toward facilitating child abuse investigations while also providing therapy and counseling. All children at the CAC are referred there because of an allegation of abuse. The CAC has no gender requirement and helps children from birth until age 18, although as Kitchens said, “Just because a young person turns 18, we won’t say, ‘Happy birthday, you can’t come back.’ The goal is once kids get to be 18, to help them transition to how to deal with their life going forward.”
Each child at the CAC is assigned an advocate who helps with everything from case management issues to food, shelter and the legal process.
“We try to make the investigative part so positive that they want to come back for therapy,” Kitchens said.
For many girls like Kristen, the CAC’s open-armed approach gives them a chance to deal with emotional trauma and change their lives in positive ways.
Amber St. Onge, Kristen’s stepmother, saw that transformation happen to Kristen.
“She was able to come to the center not knowing what she needed, just knowing that she needed something,” she said. “I love what they’ve done for her.”
Of course, Kitchens is quick to point out that Kristen did much of it for herself. And, while she is proud to see Kristen thriving, Kitchens said, “She will always have a home here.”
That support helped Kristen find the courage to face enormous difficulties, the same as PACE helped Jakayla. And, Kristen said, she believes it can do the same for anyone in a similar situation.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to people,” she said. “They can help you. Whether it’s helping you get on your feet, whether it’s helping you with family problems, don’t be scared to reach out.
“Don’t cage yourself in, because it’s hard to get yourself back out.”