By Natalie Strom
Every woman wants to feel good about themselves. No matter the age, ethnicity, size, shape, employment or family life; every woman wants to look and feel pretty – inside and out. Marco Island resident, Marina Zelner believes in this idea, whole-heartedly. The entrepeneuer began her Queen Grace clothing line for plus size women three years ago because, “I wanted (plus size) women to be able to wake up, put on a dress and feel comfortable and confident. Because once you feel confident, your whole personality shines through,” states Marina with a grand smile.
“The mission of PACE is very similar,” she quickly adds when discussing why, with a young and growing company and three children, she decided to become a Board Member of the PACE Center for Girls Immokalee Branch. “A friend brought me there and I immediately knew it was a good fit.” (No pun intended.)
Yet, Marina’s Queen Grace clothing line is all about a good fit. “Because I’m plus size, I always struggled with finding clothes for myself. So,
I thought, I’ll give it a shot,” she says of her entrepeneuerial decision. “We started three years ago but took a long time for research and development because plus sizes is a very specific niche market. Once we realized what really works for our customers… we created wearable clothes for women who can’t find these types of fashion anywhere else.”
Marina and her team technically broke down items of clothing, reshaping them as to what their specific clientele would want. “We realize what works for these women. It’s the little things that plus size girls worry about. The length of the sleeve, for example.” Or the hem line of a dress. Queen Grace’s knee length dresses are cut with just a few extra inches added to the back, so that when sitting down, one’s “assets” stay hidden.
Marina and a team of 13 based in L.A., create every season’s clothing line from scratch, attend all the trade shows, hold fashion shows and sell Queen Grace clothing through ecommerce, shipping their styles all over the
“(Queen Grace) is not just about making clothes,” emphasizes Marina. We’re really truly about empowering women to embrace their bodies the way they are. Once you feel good about how you look and that sadness goes away, the head is a little higher, the heart is a little bigger and you feel good about yourself.”
This is exactly what the Collier at Immokalee PACE Program is doing for about 58 girls right now. Considered an alternative school and partially funded by the Department of Education and the Juvenile Justice Department, the program is much more than a school.
Marianne Kearns is the Executive Director. “Kind of like a loving Principal,” as Marina describes. Director for over three years now, Marianne runs the safe and loving, but structured environment which yields extremely positive post-PACE statistics. “We are a center providing academics and social services,” explains Marianne. “We are centered in Immokalee and the the girls are usually referred to us within the community because it is so small. The problems here are generational.” Poverty, lack
of opportunity and education are primary examples due to the migrant working environment and remoteness of the town.
“The reason we chose to put a PACE Center in Immokalee is because poverty is the number one risk factor – 98 percent of our girls receive free or reduced lunch which means their (family’s) income is below the national poverty level.”
“We go into Publix and we buy our local grown tomatoes but we don’t realize how we are getting them,” Marina chimes in. “These families live in poverty and they have children – but they don’t see the life that we see. They aren’t exposed to all the opportunities that we are.”
At PACE, these girls get an opportunity. “The first milestone is getting a high school diploma because the older generations out there don’t get it. And it’s something we just take for granted. For these girls that’s a major hurdle.” explains Marianne. “This is often why they come to PACE, because they are behind academically due to a number of reasons. But they
can only come to PACE if they have four of the seven Risk Factors. These Risk Factors are: poverty, truancy, trauma, low academic functioning, incarcerated family member, mental health issue or substance abuse.
The day-program offers a high level of counseling for the girl while educating them at the same time. Independent living skills, career preparation and service learning also add to the positive outcomes. Current statistics show 100 percent of the girls have improved their academic performance and 98 percent have had no involvement with the Juvenile Justice System after leaving PACE. Ninety-three percent were placed in appropriate education settings after leaving and 86 percent were either in school or employed three years after leaving PACE. By combining compassion, guidance, counseling and schooling, the center transforms these girls’ lives.
The statewide organization gives these girls that same touch that Marina’s clothes give to plus size women. They make them feel good about themselves, and from there anything is possible.