Ashley Gilbert, once an at-risk student herself, now counsels teens at PACE Center for Girls, paying it forward for the assistance she received at IRSC. ED DRONDOSKI PHOTO
BY PATTIE DURHAM
When Ashley Gilbert was working on her bachelor’s degree at Indian River State College, she interned at PACE Center for Girls, an alternative school for girls who are at risk of dropping out of school. And it wasn’t long after that she realized it was where she belonged.
“I came here as an intern and I saw girls who reminded me so much of myself as a teenager,” she says. “I saw early on that change was possible within these walls.”
Born in New Jersey, Gilbert and her family moved to Fort Pierce when she was 12. She attended public schools, including Fort Pierce Westwood High School, where, she says, she almost didn’t graduate because of academic underachievement.
“I had to go to summer school to get through,” she says. “I was a big class clown and I think a lot of that centered around my insecurities. We didn’t have much money, so I learned to rely on my sense of humor to get people to accept me.”
Growing up on the city’s north side, her family lived in public housing and depended on food stamps for a while. Her father, Gary Gilbert Sr., who came to the United States when he was 10 and became an American citizen in 1983, returned to Haiti when he retired in 2001. Gilbert, who is fluent in Creole, and her father are very close.
“He is one of my biggest motivators,” she says, adding that they talk on the phone daily.
After graduation, Gilbert worked at Wal-Mart full time. She says she thought this was what people did after graduating from high school — they got a full-time job to support themselves.
Then one day while hanging out at IRSC’s student union with friends, Betty Talley, head of Student Support Services at the college, stopped to talk to the students. When she found out Gilbert was visiting, she offered to help her enroll. Talley became her first mentor and Gilbert became a college student.
Once at IRSC, she joined the Christian Fellowship Club and became its representative in the Campus Coalition Government (CCG). After serving as the club’s rep for three years, Gilbert was elected CCG treasurer. In her last year at IRSC, she served as president of the student organization.
In addition to her local duties, she was state secretary of the Florida College System Student Government Association and served as its service learning chairwoman. With classes, a full-time job at Wal-Mart, a part-time job in IRSC’s financial aid office, her local and state duties, her plate was quite full and yet, she excelled in all areas.
“As service learning chair, I organized community service projects in which all state college and community college students can contribute,” she says. “One year we collected the tab tops from cans for the Ronald McDonald Charity and more than 142,000 were donated.”
In addition, she became a student advocate, urging the state legislature to approve better textbook affordability and in-state tuition fees for veterans returning to college.
As part of her participation in the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship Club, a statewide organization for college students, she was challenged to become a “world changer.” When she first started at IRSC, she leaned toward a degree in digital media where she could get a well-paying job. However, her experiences with the club showed her where her heart really was and she changed her major to human services, youth and family studies.
“It became less about the money and more about being the change I wanted to see in my community,” Gilbert says.
“My internship here ended in April of my senior year,” she says, laughing softly, “but I didn’t stop volunteering until June. I couldn’t leave the girls.”
After graduation, she was offered a literacy coach position with AmeriCorps Palm Beach and was set to move, but then PACE offered a full-time counseling position. Gilbert says it was the toughest decision of her life.
“Because of the exposure I had here, I knew I could help these young ladies,” she says. “I knew I could make a difference in their lives.”
PACE is an alternative school working in conjunction with public schools and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. There are about 50 girls at the small campus on Virginia Avenue. Some are referred after a semester of academic underachievement, some are survivors of abuse and some have behavioral problems.
Yet, Gilbert says she sees changes in the students daily and that the on-demand counseling is what sets the school apart. Since starting at PACE, Gilbert has spearheaded student extra-curricular activities, serving as choir director and student government adviser. She also assists with the Spoken Word Club, a program where student write/read poetry delivered with raw emotion and passion.
One of her hobbies is making Love Bags for the homeless; quart-sized, zip-lock bags filled with personal hygiene products, food and perhaps a washcloth or a pair of socks. She says her mother distributes them when she sees a needy person near her job on Avenue C. Gilbert has gotten many of her friends to donate items and help assemble the bags. She has even gotten her students involved.
“This is their first time making them,” she says. “My goal is for everyone to get one bag to put in their parent’s car. When they (the girls) see someone who needs it, they can give it to them.”
In recognition of her community work, Gilbert, a graduate student at Nova Southeastern University, is the January 2017 recipient of the Community Impact Award presented by the Children’s Services Council and the St. Lucie County Chamber of Commerce. The award is given to “an individual working with children and families in our community to make positive changes.”
“I have 19 girls (the school has three counselors on staff) and I can relate to their lives. I did poorly in school; I lived in the projects; I lived on food stamps; I am a sexual abuse survivor; I didn’t have anyone to believe in me — I just let them know they are not defined by their experiences and the choice to change or to stay the same is their choice to make. We have all been through some type of hell, but there is a way out — and it starts with education.”
Lives in: Fort Pierce
Family: Mother, Luchie Lopez; father, Gary Gilbert Sr.; sister, Maddy Gilbert; brother, Gary Gilbert Jr.
Education: Indian River State College, associate in arts, general studies; Indian River State College, bachelor of science, human services, youth and family studies; Nova Southeastern University, working on a master’s degree, mental health counseling
Hobbies: Making Love Bags for the homeless, singing karaoke, community activities, painting
What inspires me: Intervarsity Christian Student Fellowship
Something most people don’t know about me: “I still read the dictionary. It’s something I have always done to look for new words to add to my vocabulary.”