Avilus goes from Pace girl to associate director role

Kristel Avilus talks about being the new associated executive direct at the Pace Center for Girls.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

From the outset, Kristel Avilus had mixed emotions when her mother decided they’d move from Jamaica to Tallahassee.

Her gut feeling was correct, as the relationship that her mother thought she would have with the man who encouraged her more than two decades ago to come to Tallahassee didn’t materialize.

In the meantime, Avilus began to realize that life in the US would be different while she was attending Griffin Middle School.

She was bullied, sometimes being told that she was different from the other students because of her light brown skin. She had a thick island accent, too.

“When I got here and I couldn’t fit in the race,” she said, “it was a big problem.” 

Indeed it was. She spent many hours during school days in the restroom crying. Her grades nosedived and her life began to spiral out of control.

“I had to fit into one of these boxes and I just couldn’t,” said Avelus.

Her mother enrolled her in Pace Center for Girls. Things began to change until Avilus became pregnant at age 15. 

Avilus recently shared her story inside the conference room of the building that houses the Pace Center. She sat there as the new associate executive director of the center.

“It just started to hit me,” Avilus said. “To come into these doors as this broken dyslexic girl from this third-world country and now leading it.

“When I got it, it took me a long time to process. It was just so surreal for me.”

In 2021 she was saluted as one of Tallahassee’s 25 Women You Need to Know. That and all the other accolades she’s received are kept in her office. They include being named Social Worker of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers. She also received the Seeking Excellence Award from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Her alma mater Thomas University also recognized her with the Be the Change Award, and the OASIS Center for Women and Girls also presented her its Unsung Shero Award.

Avelus was born in Virginia and moved to Jamaica at age 1.

On the way to becoming the associate executive director, Avilus earned an AA degree from Tallahassee Community College, a bachelors degree from Thomas University and a masters from Florida State University. Every stop was a step on the way to becoming a licensed clinical social worker.

Even in adulthood Avilus had to overcome several challenges. Her mother was briefly incarcerated; she lost her father to suicide after he’d served 20 years in the Navy. She also had to endure losing her grandfather, who was an integral part of her upbringing in Jamaica.

Through all of that she worked at Pace as an in-take and transition councilor, then social service manager, and program director.

She was named associated executive director last December.

“We always say we want representation,” said Talethia Edwards, a friend of Avilus’ and a community advocate. “She is the ultimate representation of a Pace girl; knows the situation and the home life.  

“She is that living example of you can do it because I can do it. That pride that’s felt now throughout Pace as these girls look at Miss Kristel and say ‘she was a Pace girl just like me.’ ”

After graduating from a program for teenage mothers as valedictorian of her class of eight at Lively Technical College, she got married to Jodanis Avilus. He became more than the father of her six children ages 23 to 4. 

She smiled broadly when she talked about the Haitian man she said helped her confidence. When she wanted to stop her studies while at TCC, he told her “We have to prove the world wrong,” she recalled. 

“Our story has to make it. He kept saying that.”

Her husband’s encouragement prevented her from totally giving up on her college education. Admittedly, she said, the success they had as a couple after starting Discount Transportation, got her thinking she didn’t have to push on.

“It was just too much on my plate and I let school fall,” she said. “I got a taste of money; real money and said who needs school.”

 The growth of their business was swift. She drove cabs at nights and he drove in the daytime. Before long, they added limousine buses and their fleet of cabs grew to 20 in a year.

Her husband refused to let her stop attending college, though.

He told her “looking at the end goal, he kept saying what would you tell your daughter,” she remembers him saying. “You want to tell her you just gave up because you had her. That’s a big burden for her to carry.”

That was enough to get Avilus back on track. She eventually did an internship at Pace when it was located at Cross Creek, the same location where she once was a student. 

She’s told the story countless times.

“It gives me purpose every day to show them the other side,” she said. “I am like a mirror for these girls.”

The Pace Center takes girls ages 11 to 18 and they study the same curriculum as Leon County Schools. Class sizes are limited to a maximum of 12 for the 70 students.

Volunteers and donors help to make the Center function. One of its biggest supporters is attorney Stephen Knight, who said Avilus’ promotion means stability for the Center.

“She clearly has that it,” Knight said. “The only limitation that Kristel has is herself. Every obstacle she has faced she has overcome. 

“I don’t know her future plans but whatever she does, I know she would always want to stay connected to her roots; to Pace and girls going through the same struggles that she went through as a young lady.”

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