After years of searching, the PACE Center for Girls of Lee County has found a permanent home.
Last week, the center closed on the purchase of the former Richard Milburn Academy in Fort Myers. Since opening its doors in 2007, the not-for-profit organization has been renting a building.
"We've been renting the same facility here on Schoolhouse Road," Dolly Farrell, the development director for the Lee center, said Thursday. "We're at 43 girls, and there's no room for growth."
Located at 3800 Evans Ave., the new 15,000-square-foot facility will more than double the classroom instructional space, allowing PACE Lee to expand its capacity and services to local young women.
"This was the right one for us," she said of the building. "We were fortunate to secure it."
PACE Lee is one of 18 centers located within Florida. The PACE Center for Girls provides girls and young women an opportunity for a better future through education, counseling, training and advocacy. It offers year-round counseling and academic services for girls age 12-18, who are facing challenges.
Eligible youths must exhibit certain risk factors, including a history of foster care, domestic violence abuse or neglect, death of a parent, substance abuse, or a family or personal history of incarceration.
"The girls come to us through referrals," Farrell said, adding that the program is voluntary.
Renovations on the new center are expected to take two to three months.
"It's a former school and that was just a huge plus for us - it's already outfitted with the right doors, the right classrooms," she said, adding that it also has space for administrative offices.
It will have eight classrooms, compared to the current five, and a computer lab and an art space.
"We'll have a library," Farrell said, noting that is a first for the Lee center.
"We're very tight right now where we are," she said.
The renovations are light, like new carpeting, new paint and a shower in the girl's bathroom.
"It's very minimal. We have to get the building to PACE Center standards," Farrell said.
Relocating to the new building will also enable the organization to save about 10 percent of its operating costs, or an estimated $11,000. The additional funds will go back into the program.
"It's a dream come true," she said of the new center.
The anticipated move-in date is February.
In 2011, PACE Lee launched the $2 million Dream BIG Capital Campaign, with a matching gift challenge from the Kleist Family Foundation. It has since raised $764,000 with help from the public. The organization had to raise an additional $400,000 by Dec. 31 to cover the building renovations.
Today, officials will announce the receipt of a matching gift equal to the $400,000 needed for the organization to reach its goal. The name of the new center also will be revealed to the public.
"We have a name for the building," Farrell said.
Since 2007, PACE Lee has assisted more than 600 young women.
"More than 96 percent of our PACE girls, after completing the program, have not been involved with the juvenile justice system," she said. "Most of our girls return to public schools."
New program participants are typically one to two grade levels behind.
While the PACE Center works on catching the girls up on basic academics, like science and math, it also goes further by focusing on overall development and providing daily counseling to each girl.
"What's unique about PACE is they're also assigned a counselor," Farrell said.
"We really look at them as a whole person and assist them in that development," she said.
On average, participants remain in the program 12 to 18 months.
"Girls are free to transition at any point," Farrell said.
When participants move out of the program, the involvement of the counselors does not end.
"We follow our transition girls for three years after they leave PACE," she said.
Currently, more than 200 transition girls are being assisted.
"It's probably the reason our success rate is so high," Farrell said, calling it a critical aspect of the overall program. "They don't always make the right choices immediately."
The seeds of improvement are planted during the girl's participation in the program.
"Those seeds are germinating in those three years after they leave," she said.
Farrell reiterated that the centers are all-girl schools.
"I think there's a real special piece to that - we're a gender responsive program," she said. "It's designed specifically to help girls improve their lives and get back on track."
The PACE Center for Girls of Lee County is currently at 3760 Schoolhouse Road W.
For more information about PACE Lee or the Dream BIG Capital Campaign, visit online at: www.pacecenter.org/lee or call (239) 425-2366, ext. 25.
Monetary gifts can be made online at: www.pacecenter.org/support-pace/donate.