BROOKSVILLE — Some witnessed horrific tragedies no child should. Others self-medicated to hide distorted self-images. Still others felt abandoned by those who were supposed to protect them.

All had acted out in some fashion, earning them a referral from their school for an intervention that would help guide them back on the right track.

How they ended up at Pace Center for Girls Hernando, a gender responsive intervention for at-risk teens, is certainly important for the advocates helping them build better futures. But for the girls, it’s more about where they go from here. When they finish the program, they will almost certainly thrive with the tools they’ve obtained on their quest to succeed.

The Pasco Center Hernando is located inside J.D. Floyd Elementary School, where, on June 25, about 30 students gathered. State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia had arrived to present three girls with the Exhibit Courage Award. Each honoree was given a special long-sleeved pink T-shirt for their exhibited courage in a task or event.

The girls walked up individually to the front when their name were called and posed for a photo with the Hernando County Republican lawmaker.

The shirts have a significance within the program, said Gail Armstrong, the executive director for Pace Center for Girls in both Hernando and Pasco counties. Each new girl is given a standard shirt when they enter the program. They are then given opportunities to earn special shirts, like the ones presented.

Although these shirts were dramatically more special because Ingoglia had created the award specifically. It was the first time it had been presented.

In turn, the students presented Ingoglia with a Believing in Girls Award for his support of Pace.

Pace Center for Girls has 21 centers across the state of Florida and is branching into a national program as its works to open a center in Macon, Georgia, projected for the end of the year.

Hernando County welcomed the program in January 2018 and has reached 83 students. The first three graduates were honored this year.

Pace, funded by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, is focused on prevention. The idea is to keep the girls from re-offending. But to qualify, each must have three high-risk factors from an extensive list.

Many of the behaviors that have gotten the girls in trouble stem from poor coping skills. Substance abuse, self-mutilation, and acting out are ways they’ve learned to cope.

“These are the things the girls are coming in with and they’re telling us about,” said Armstrong. “These are what the girls are doing to cope with the victimization and isolation of the family that lead to a lack of successes.”

The program takes in girls as young as 11, in middle and high school, some who already have permanent scars from cutting themselves.

But even scarier are the number of girls who attempted to take their own lives, Armstrong continued. As many as 25 percent of those the Pace Center has helped since opening.

“That’s truly frightening. You’re looking at girls who are feeling completely hopeless and don’t see another way out,” she added.

Pace is an academic program that helps girls who have lost their way achieve success. But it is much more than classroom work. They receive counseling onsite, confidence building and become a part of a much bigger picture.

Girls meet specific criteria before returning to their mainstream schools. They include a series of social improvement, academic improvement, and volunteer engagements. The academic criteria is based on the Hernando County School system.

“There are a lot of different components around our Successful Girl matrix. Normally it takes about 15 to 18 months,” Armstrong added. Most girls then return to their zoned schools.

Some have a slightly difficult transition back because Pace provides such a safe and nurturing environment. “But the idea is you want to give them wings to thrive.”

Transition services are offered for those who need a slower adjustment. Counselors will remain in contact for a minimum of a year.

But the motto is “once a Pace girl, always a Pace girl”. Some remain in contact years after they’ve left the program.

Pace for Girls faces a real challenge getting information out about the program. Armstrong encouraged anyone interested to reach our for information or a tour of the facility.

One girl who had completed the program wrote a letter to those who would follow behind her.

“In life there will be many obstacles in your way and you just got to climb over those obstacles to get where you want in life. I’m going to miss everyone at Pace but college is calling my name and it’s time to fly the coop. Pace has helped me so much and now I’m ready to take on the real world.”

For more information about Pace Center for Girls, call 727-849-1901 or visit the website at pacecenter.org.