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FT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami) – Girls who were once facing personal or academic challenges are now rising stars at Pace Center for Girls Broward in Wilton Manors.

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They credit the school environment and a special bond with a volunteer mentor.

“Inspiring, loving, fun, and intelligent” is how a group of girls from the school describe Allison Cagnetta.

Cagnetta, a Pace board member and volunteer, leads the girls’ weekly book club. After raising two daughters of her own, Cagnetta wanted to use her background in counseling to give back to the community. She teamed up with the school administration to start the book club that’s evolved into a safe space for academic and personal growth.

“We decided that it would be a great way for the girls to spend time with their friends outside of the classroom where they’re still doing something that’s productive and fun,” said Cagnetta.

The girls select books to read and discuss, but it’s not unusual for the discussions to turn personal.

“If they come in and they’re having an issue that day, that comes to the forefront and that’s something that we’ll discuss first. Everything that’s discussed in the book club stays in the book club,” added Cagnetta.

The book club has created a comfortable setting for what might otherwise be uncomfortable conversations for these girls, many of which who bring past troubles to the table.

“A lot of the girls that end up here at Pace are coming here because they’ve been in a difficult situation, have had trauma, have had difficulty in school, they’ve been bullied, not doing well and dropping out,” said Cagnetta.

Tiara Williams is one of those girls. She transferred to Pace in the 6th grade.

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“I was hanging with the wrong crowd and I got into trouble in school. I had a very low self-esteem, I actually believed that I had no meaning,” said Williams.

Now an 8th grader, Williams is making A’s and B’s in school. She’s been awarded achievement beads for academic and character accomplishments – a school tradition. She’s also running for school Vice President and someday hopes to serve in the military.

Williams credits Pace Center for Girls Broward and ‘Miss Allison’, as the girls call Cagnetta, with turning her life around. The two met in the book club and formed a special bond when tragedy struck. When William’s friend was killed in a car wreck, it was Cagnetta who was there to console her.

“He was like a brother to me and I just really wish I had the chance to say that I love him, but Miss Allison told me one day I’ll see him again and tell him myself,” said Williams.

Whether it’s being there to listen and console, or to help with vocabulary and reading comprehension, Cagnetta says she’s just happy to be there for girls who sometimes don’t know who to turn to.

“I just feel like it’s such an honor for me to spend time with them and to help in any way I can just to make a little difference in their lives,” she said.

Williams added, “she’s just a really kind-hearted person. She’s very selfless, she’s very thoughtful. She’s just like, the most kind person you can ever meet in the world.”

Pace Center for Girls Broward is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The school says 6,500 girls have been helped since the school was founded. Now, a capital improvement campaign is raising funds for classroom technology.

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