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By Anne Teigen

Cierrah is like a lot of 16-year-old girls. She’s quick to giggle, loves dancing and hip-hop, and is a self-described “social butterfly.” She looks forward to teen nights at local dance clubs with her friends.

When she graduates from high school next year—she’s earning As and Bs— she wants to go to cosmetology school, and then work styling hair and doing make-up.

In many ways, her future is full of promise. Yet her past was full of pain. Cierrah, like many of the young women at the 17 locations operated by the PACE Center for Girls in Florida, has lived a life marked by tragedy.

“I never met my real dad, so I don’t know what he even looks like,” she says.

When she was 5, her mother married a man who beat her and a younger brother and sister.

“My mom left him for about a year but he found us,” she says. “He came to our trailer and found my mom with her new boyfriend, who was black, and my stepdad was racist. Before I knew it, gunshots were fired.”

No one was hurt, and Cierrah’s mom ended up back with the stepfather. A year later, he died of a heart attack. Soon her mom was working late shifts at a bar, and Cierrah was left to care for her brother and sister.

“It didn’t really bother me, though, because I had been doing that since I was 7,” she says.
Cierrah made it through the eighth grade with Cs and Ds but barely passed ninth grade after missing 32 days of school. “I stayed at home with my mom a lot of times so I could spend time with her,” she says. “I never told her I smoked weed or had sex, but I think she probably knew. We were very close, best friends.”

Five days after Cierrah turned 16, a police officer came to the door with news of another tragic turn in her family’s life. Her mother and her boyfriend had been out drinking the night before and were killed in a drunken driving crash. Cierrah had to identify her mother by her ankle tattoo; she and her mom had matching tattoos.

Cierrah and her siblings went to live with the parents of a close friend. Soon after, she was caught for truancy. When she was offered an opportunity to attend the PACE Center in Orlando, she decided it was her best chance to avoid ending up in more trouble or jail.

More than 21,000 Florida girls have attended PACE schools since the program was founded in 1983. It’s recognized as a national prevention model for girls by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Children’s Defense Fund, National Mental Health Association, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
One of the great features of PACE, Cierrah says, is the availability of counselors. They’re always there to talk with the girls. She also likes the small class sizes.

While Cierrah has her heart set on cosmetology, she also sees community service in her future.
“I’m looking for ways to speak at AA meetings to help other alcoholics, like my mom,” she says. “I want to let them know that what they do impacts others, but they can overcome it.”

Cierrah often feels she has the world on her shoulders and doesn’t want to let anyone down. “Especially my siblings, I can’t let them down,” she says. “I’m like their mom now.”

But since attending PACE, she knows she doesn’t have to take on the world by herself.

“There are days I want to give up but I don’t, because I know I have a family at home and a family at PACE that cares for me and that’s what that keeps me going.”

Anne Teigen tracks juvenile justice issues for NCSL.