Elaine Pace went from being an honor’s student with a college scholarship to living in her car for most of a year. Despite her share of ups and down, Elaine considers herself incredibly fortunate.
Pace came to Jacksonville as part of a Navy family. Her father was posted to a new location every 18 months for most of his career, but that changed when Elaine’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I was 14 when my mom died. It had been a really hard five years, but together, my dad and my sister and I got through it as best we could. My mom was amazing. She prepared us for everything, right up until her last days,” she says.
Elaine was an honor student. But her home life deteriorated quickly after her mother’s death.
“I graduated when I was 16 from Orange Park High School and left the house soon after that. My father remarried less than a year after my mom died, and he didn’t choose well. He married a woman who was unkind to his daughters. I received a scholarship to junior college to debate. I was going to school full-time, I was working three jobs, and got an apartment with three roommates, who all moved out at once and left me with thousands of dollars of bills, and I couldn’t keep up,” she remembers.
So Elaine, with a scholarship and part-time jobs, lived for the next nine months in her AMC Gremlin.
“That Gremlin to me was everything,” she says. “It had enough room to put everything I had in it, and I could lay down the front seat and sleep in it. When I was able to scrape together $5, there was a man who would lock me in a gas station bathroom, and I could spend the night with a sink and a bathroom.”
Elaine kept the fact that she lived in her car a secret.
“I was ashamed that I couldn’t take care of myself. I’m not ashamed of myself now, but I can feel what that shame felt like,” she says.
Pace managed to get another college scholarship for debating at a college in Alabama. But the college ended debate scholarships before she graduated. She worked in the states and in England before returning to Jacksonville, where she attended UNF. After earning her bachelor’s, she won a scholarship to the Kennedy School for Government at Harvard. Then, she moved to Utah.
“I’d never lived somewhere that had mountains, and I wanted to ski. I didn’t think it would be for long, but I ended up staying 15 years. I met my husband there. Recently, we moved our family back to Jacksonville. I missed being here. I work for myself now, consulting with non-profits and helping them to do better philanthropy,” she says.
But despite a life that has had its share of tragedy and upheaval, Elaine wouldn’t trade away any of it.
“I’ve always considered myself to be incredibly fortunate. My mom brought me up: If we got a dollar for allowance, 10 cents of it went into the poor box at church. I’ve been lucky enough to have had people who’ve helped in various circumstances, so that I have that opportunity to give back now,” she says.
And if there’s one thing she’s learned from all of it, it’s this: “Take the opportunities as they come up. Don’t overanalyze them or over-think them. If someone invites you to do something you’ve never done, go ahead and do it. Take the opportunities that life offers. There are so many.”