Finding Her Way
At Pace Center for Girls, Immokalee teen Mercedez Suarez corrects her course and finds her voice.
In May of 2021, Mercedez Suarez was reported missing. It was a typical day for the 17-year-old freshman. She had skipping down to a science: Mercedez would attend first period at Immokalee High School to make roll call, and by third period, she’d be on her way to LaBelle or Ave Maria to smoke weed and drink with her friends. Struggling in class and frustrated at home, she sought escape through drugs and alcohol.
Tension at home had been simmering for more than a year. In 2020, her mom was hospitalized for two weeks, and Mercedez had to fill the role as head of the house. She cleaned, cooked, did the laundry and dishes, and put her three younger siblings to bed each night. She and her mom began to butt heads. “We didn’t always agree on a lot of things,” she recalls. “I felt like it was just a lot of pressure on me—like, ‘It’s all leaning toward me now that my mom’s not here.’”
On that night in May, the Suarez family feared the worst; Mercedez came home at 4 a.m. to her worried mother and father. The following day, her school resource officer approached her with a suggestion: Pace Center for Girls. The nonprofit provides education, career preparation and mental health counseling to at-risk girls, ages 11 to 17, in a year-round school setting through the Day Program, and at public schools, at home and online through the Pace Reach Program. With 23 branches across Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, Pace helps 3,000 girls a year. Their evidence-based and outcome-oriented approach empowers young women to build a better life.
At first, Mercedez was not on board. “I was going to lose my friends,” she says. “I didn’t want to be in a new school environment.” But her family embraced the need for a change. She moved in with her aunt and three days later, started at Pace.
Though it was only a 15-minute walk from her former high school, Pace was a world away for Mercedez. In addition to teaching typical high school subjects, the program guides girls to advance through its five levels: Opportunity, Responsibility, Dignity, Serenity and Grace. At each level, students identify areas of behavioral change, embrace growth and create partnerships by evaluating pros and cons, writing essays and completing service-learning projects.
Through tailored programming for each student, Mercedez was encouraged to focus on leadership and civic service. Her favorite class, Spirited Girls, allows the students to have open discussions around taboo subjects, like mental health and substance abuse. “My family and I struggle with depression,” she says. “When we’re able to talk about that, I feel like I’m not the only person going through it.” The class equips the girls with simple but effective tools they don’t find in the classroom. They listen to music when upset or play with stress balls to reduce anxiety.
The Pace approach—pairing coping strategies with an on-site licensed mental health therapist—has proven 96 percent effective for girls who enter the program with a history of trauma. Students may stop by a counselor’s office anytime during the school day. They can get time away when feeling overwhelmed, talk to a teacher or therapist about obstacles or just complete their schoolwork in a quiet space. Full-time therapy at the Immokalee school is made possible by the Naples Children & Education Foundation, which facilitates relationships between Pace and other organizations to get students access to needed medical and mental health care.
These partnerships are instrumental to Pace’s success: In 2019, a research firm found girls at Pace are nearly twice as likely to be on track to graduate compared to young women with the same risk factors at public institutions. Through the fundraising efforts of the Naples Children & Education Foundation’s signature event, the Naples Winter Wine Festival, Pace achieves this at no cost to families.
For Mercedez, Pace would change her life. After a year and a half, she has no unexcused absences, her GPA has improved and she’s working her way up to Grace, the last level of achievement at Pace.
But it hasn’t all been easy. A year into the program, Mercedez’s therapist pulled her aside and told her she would not advance to the next level. Teachers were concerned by her sarcasm and language in class. “I could see I was in the wrong for that,” Mercedez says. She knew something needed to change. She worked with her therapist to address the behavior and developed tactics to speak more thoughtfully. Within two months, she advanced: “I also saw the change in myself, and it made me feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I could change a lot of things.’”
Now Mercedez is a part of the Girls Leadership Council, composed of four girls who speak directly with staff members to advocate for the students at the center. In September, she sat down with the cook and the executive director to make changes in the lunch menu and dress code, which resulted in more options at the salad bar and laxer restrictions for dress-down day. Speaking for her classmates translated to better communication at home. In September, Mercedez moved back in with her parents, and now she feels more comfortable talking to her mom. “I am able to tell her things,” she says.
Pace has a proven track record with girls like Mercedez. Since 1985, the nonprofit has worked with more than 40,000 girls; it has a 90 percent success rate in improving academic achievement through the Pace Day Program and 99 percent success with behavior and reducing delinquency through the Pace Reach Program. “Pace is important because everybody has a different story,” Mercedez says. Small classrooms and constant engagement allow the staff to develop students’ strengths and respond to specific needs. A trauma-informed approach in a healthy and supportive environment encourages students to build trusting, long-term relationships in and outside the school.
As for the future, Mercedez is setting her sights high. She hopes to attend a state university and become a heart surgeon. Since she’s proven she can accomplish her goals, she’s not limited by how big they can be.
Learning to Cope
After the sudden loss of her confidant, her mother, 16-year-old Mackenzie Francois sought refuge in Valerie’s House.
Mackenzie Francois was 16 when her mother suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. Her brother, at 22, was not in a place to care for his kid sister. Her mom had recently started seeing a new man, but Mackenzie wasn’t close to him. Suddenly, she was forced to imagine a life without her mom, the only close family she’d ever known.
Two months after her mother was hospitalized, Mackenzie moved from Port St. Lucie to live with a distant cousin in Naples. Leaving her friends and school behind, she embarked on a new chapter alone. Though her mother would remain on life-support for five more months, Mackenzie felt her childhood was over. “Even before [my mom] died, when she was in the hospital, at that point in my brain, she already died,” she says. While her distant relatives provided for her basic needs, Mackenzie was largely alone in Naples.
In February 2020, her mom was pronounced brain-dead. Mackenzie didn’t allow herself to grieve. She was back in school the next day. She didn’t share her loss with her peers or teachers. Her situation deteriorated a month later when the world shut down due to COVID-19. Attending school online and with no in-person grieving services available, she was secluded in her room and forced to mourn in isolation for the better part of a year. By the time she returned to school in person, Mackenzie had dropped out of track and field, her grades were slipping and it was clear that she was struggling mentally. Her counselor suggested she visit Valerie’s House, a local nonprofit established to support grieving children and families. The group broke ground on a 7,000-square-foot ‘forever home’ in Fort Myers last year.
In 2021, the Childhood Bereavement Estimation Model reported 32,200 children were bereaved in three of Southwest Florida’s counties. Across the country, it’s estimated that 5.6 million kids will lose a parent or sibling before they reach 18, and 57 percent of those grieving report a decline in support from family and friends within three months of a loss. For kids who have lost a loved one, Valerie’s House provides a reliable community with a shared experience for extended grieving.
The core of the nonprofit is peer-group counseling, which is funded by the Naples Children & Education Foundation. The foundation also connects Valerie’s House with other local agencies, like Kids’ Minds Matter, Naples Therapeutic Riding Center (NTRC) and STARability Foundation. Through its network of partner nonprofits, NCEF can help address each child’s unique need by identifying complementary services from other nonprofits. Last year, the group partnered with Collier County Public Schools to provide in-school grief counseling. The team has also partnered with NTRC to provide equine-assisted therapy for children with emotional disabilities.
Though Mackenzie credits the peer counseling with saving her life, she wasn’t ready to open up at first. She was used to suppressing her grief. “I was still not properly responding to the death of my mother. I kind of put her death on the back burner and I was just moving on, which was not a smart idea,” Mackenzie admits. “I held it in so much that I broke down.”
Through the counseling sessions at Valerie’s House, Mackenzie started to process and understand her feelings. Nearly two years later, she still hasn’t missed a session.
Connecting with peers who have lost someone has made all the difference. Valerie’s House understands that young children and teens grieve differently than adults. Children may go through spurts of grieving and playing. They may regress to behaviors like bed-wetting, ask repeated questions about their loved one, act out or become withdrawn. Teens especially benefit from having confidants their age who they can talk to when they’re ready. “When you’re in a counselor’s office talking about it, it’s kind of like you have to keep that wall up of not letting them know too much,” Mackenzie says. “But then when you’re with the kids, it’s like, ‘Oh, I am with my friends talking.’”
Six months after her first session, Valerie’s House conducted a reflection exercise, and Mackenzie realized she was making real strides. Her grades had improved, and she was pushing herself to get out there, attending high school football games and engaging in other quintessential high school experiences. She had come so far that she wanted to give back. By the time she graduated in May, Mackenzie had clocked more than 100 volunteer hours at NTRC, Lee County Sheriff’s Office and local food banks. She didn’t log most of the hours with her high school as is typical for students in pursuit of a well-rounded college application. When asked why, she shrugs, insisting that her focus is solely on impacting her community and helping those in need. She also started volunteering as a ‘group buddy’ at Valerie’s House, acting as a peer who listens, encourages and engages with grieving kids.
Last year, Mackenzie graduated from high school with a 3.3 GPA and secured two scholarships: one from Champions for Learning and another from Valerie’s House, which provides support for graduating seniors who’ve participated in their programs. She’s now studying forensics at Florida Gulf Coast University and dreams of opening orphanages across the country to serve children in need. In her free time, she still works with grieving kids at the center. “I love Valerie’s House,” she says. “I can say it saved my life.”
Building a Village
Better Together helped Ramona Nuñez escape domestic abuse and continues to provide a safe harbor for her children while she receives essential medical care.
Four years ago, Ramona Nuñez and her family were trapped in an abusive household. Ramona, who had long been in poor health and suffered from multiple injuries, was largely cut off from the outside world as she struggled to raise her daughters and attain necessary medical care. Better Together provided Ramona with the support she needed to break free of her abuser and keep her daughters out of foster care.
The Brooklyn native first became entangled in an abusive relationship with a man 20 years her senior when she was 16. A year later, she gave birth to a son. She worked multiple jobs and stayed in shelters to survive. For 15 years, she raised her son alone. In 2011, when she met a security guard while on vacation in Florida, she let herself dream of building a family unit with a strong partner by her side. She moved to Naples to live closer to him, and they had two daughters together, Anaelizabeth and Kathy, now 12 and 9.
Ramona’s hopes for a safe environment for her children fell as her partner proved to be manipulative, controlling and physically abusive. Ramona wasn’t allowed to work or attend school. He kept her isolated from friends and family. After a violent outburst, his mother would turn up at her apartment with makeup to cover Ramona’s bruises.
Ramona filed complaints and police reports against the girls’ father, but she didn’t leave him right away; she believed he could change. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCF) launched a six-month-long investigation. During that time, Ramona and her daughters found solace in visits to Grace Place for Children and Families, an NCEF-supported education nonprofit. With the girls by her side or in the center’s childcare area, Ramona took classes in cooking and parenting. But she needed more than short-term support.
After being in multiple car accidents, Ramona required several major surgeries: metal brackets and screws in her neck, repairs to her rotary cuff and shoulder, and lower back surgery, among others. Since childhood, she’s also suffered from epileptic spells that are exasperated by lack of sleep and heightened stress. If she misses a dose of her medication, she can lose consciousness and fall into violent, full-body spasms.
By 2019, her son had grown and left home, but her daughters were still young. After years of failed intervention, the DCF representative on her case offered her an ultimatum: keep the girls at home and they would eventually be taken to foster care, or leave her abuser and seek help from Better Together. Ramona opted to make a break from the 11 combined years of abuse from two partners in hopes of changing the patterns of poverty and abuse in her family.
Better Together has built a local network to temporarily care for children of struggling parents while they recover from illnesses, get jobs or otherwise get back on their feet. In Collier County, there are 300 kids in foster care, with an estimated 75 percent placed there due to neglect. Better Together aims to prevent families from entering the system and the kids from experiencing the trauma of state intervention. Families work with Better Together on a voluntary basis to address common causes of neglect, such as job loss and medical emergencies. With NCEF’s assistance, the nonprofit has helped more than 3,000 children, keeping 98 percent of them out of foster care.
Ramona, Anaelizabeth and Kathy moved into The Shelter for Abused Women & Children, where they began a relationship with Better Together. The girls were first placed with Traci and Ricco Thurwalker, who have hosted 11 kids through Better Together since joining the group in 2019. The girls returned with a glowing report; the couple took them on walks to friends’ houses and introduced them to healthy habits. “‘We felt safe,’” Ramona recalls them saying.
Two years ago, Ramona’s doctor discovered a large cyst on her ovary; she would need it and the ovary removed. Better Together connected Ramona with another couple, Sondra and William McCaskill, who stepped in to host her daughters for a week. Since then, the two have continued trading recipes and ideas for outdoor activities to keep the girls engaged and healthy. When Anaelizabeth showed signs of emotional eating, Ramona turned to Sondra, who’d had a similar experience with her own child.
Last summer, when Ramona needed several weeks to heal from shoulder surgery, another couple—interior designer Agnes Morrison, and her husband, Todd, who works at Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida—stepped up. Though the girls only stayed with them for three weeks, the visit had a huge impact. Agnes has since filled out scholarship applications for the girls to attend free vacation Bible school, stood next to Ramona as they baptized Anaelizabeth and is the emergency contact for the girls. “I just had two surgeries,” Ramona says. “I have three more procedures to go, but Better Together is helping me cope … They’re offering a safe environment for my daughters. I couldn’t be more thankful for them.”
Ramona is now a student at Florida SouthWestern State College. Between balancing church, work and caring for her girls, she now feels she can make herself and her daughters proud. The three have an apartment, and Ramona dedicates her free time after they’ve gone to bed to her studies. “If it wasn’t for [groups] like Better Together, I wouldn’t have been able to heal in order to take care of them so we could be better together,” she says.
Learn more about how the Naples Children & Education Foundation changes kids’ lives in Collier County.