Bradenton's PACE Center for Girl changes a life

vmannix@bradenton.comAugust 9, 2013 


Fifty-two teenage girls will be recognized at Friday's PACE Center for Girls' quarterly awards ceremony.

Only one will wear a cap and gown.

It's graduation day for Krizzel Cruz, a poignant rite of passage for an 18-year-old who struggled to find herself.

Whereas PACE usually mainstreams its adolescent students back into high schools, Cruz is its first bona fide graduate.

"When I got here, I didn't have a clue, but it opened my eyes," Cruz said. "There are some things I needed to do so I can feel better about myself."

Mission accomplished.

"My daughter is prepared to face the world," Juana Cruz said.

That wasn't the case a few years ago. Krizzel Cruz couldn't face anybody.

"I didn't know how to communicate with people," she said. "I was lacking in so many things."

"She had a lot of anxiety, also fear," said Amy Wick-Mavis, PACE executive director.

Cruz's situation was exacerbated by bad decisions.

As a Sugg Middle School student, she frequently skipped school and when she did go, she didn't attend class.

"I didn't feel important, I hung out with the wrong people and I was always in trouble at school," Cruz said. "I was always on the defensive about everything. I had so much anger."

Her home life was a tinder box, too.

Boys. Friends. Grades.

All were hot-button topics.

"She needed so much help," Cruz's mother said. "The public school could not give her the personal attention she needed. I

needed somewhere so secure it would be like another home for her."

Enter PACE, which is contracted with the Manatee County School District and has served more than 1,200 girls since 1989.

Cruz attended PACE for 2 1/2 years, transferred to Central High School as a sophomore, but decided to return to PACE as a senior.

"It's like a family," she said. "They know you here and it's like a team pushing you on."

They do, indeed.

"Girls as women, we bring everything that happens in our lives with us everywhere we go," Wick-Mavis said. "Some bad things had happened in her life and she didn't know how to cope with that. She was mad inside and didn't know how to get rid of it. That prevented her from being successful in school."

So, along with TLC, some prioritizing was in order.

"What we want them to understand is we don't want school to take a back-burner to whatever happened at home or with their boyfriend or their family, whatever," Wick-Mavis said. "We want them to come to school, get that issue addressed and get their work done. That's what our counselors are able to do."

Counselors such as Lavonna Gregory.

While Cruz was able to improve academically -- she has a 3.5 GPA -- it was the guidance she received that nurtured her personal growth.

Understandably, it took time.

"She wasn't able to articulate her feelings in the beginning," Gregory said. "She felt like her opinion, her thoughts were not important. It took a while, but she came to understand about her feelings and what she needs to open up about.

"I feel it is very important to empower an individual like that so they can say how they feel, so they can be successful as a daughter, be successful in school, be successful in and of itself.

"Without self-confidence, where are we?"

Krizzel Cruz found the difference it made and has flourished.

Her mother is moved by the transformation.

"She is more sure of herself, very mature in her way of thinking and acting," Juana Cruz said. "I am grateful to PACE."

Her daughter is enrolled in Manatee Technological Institute's cosmetology school and will attend Keiser University's nursing program.

"Before all I wanted to do was just graduate," Krizzel Cruz said. "Now I know what I can do."

A fitting graduation day gift.

"That," Wick-Mavis said, "is exciting."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix. Reporter Jessica DeLeon contributed to this story.usually7


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