Imani Cooper, head of school at Southside Academy, speaks Thursday during the Picnic for Peacemakers at Englewood Baptist Church. The new private school is slated to open in 2022.

Because the annual Peacemakers fundraising banquet was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, organizers were determined this year to bring people together for a night of celebration and worship.

Picnic for Peacemakers was the theme for the event on Thursday where attendees wore jeans and dined on fried chicken, baked beans and potato salad at Englewood Baptist Church.

Executive Director Jesse Lewis said Peacemakers of Rocky Mount looks to “empower members of the South Rocky Mount community and surrounding areas with the knowledge and skills necessary to live successful and sustainable lives.”

“We strive to tangibly demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ in such a way that it results ultimately in the complete transformation of the community and its people,” he said. “We want to see our neighbors thrive. We do this by focusing on three areas: education, job readiness and housing development.”

Over the past four years, Peacemakers has been cultivating a vision to start a private school in South Rocky Mount. Head of School Imani Cooper announced Thursday that Southside Academy will open its doors in 2022.

Cooper said that “music and dance will be a part of the learning experience, where you can learn more about God while receiving an education where the cost of attendance is at little cost to our families.”

Cooper went on to say that the need for a school in that community is necessary because many schools don’t meet the needs of students.

“To help steer children away from self-perpetuating cycles that lead to continual socioeconomic disadvantage and loss of hope, Southside Academy will provide comprehensive support to students year-round,” she said.

Peacemakers board member Kay Gurganus told attendees how Peacemakers has been supporting education efforts by offering Freedom School, which is a seven-week, full-time summer enrichment program that helps students master reading skills, increase their self-esteem and generate a more positive attitude toward learning.

Peacemakers also offers a free after-school program for 40 neighborhood elementary students four days a week, two hours per day during the school year. The program provides students with homework assistance and individual tutoring.

Michelle McNeil, program coordinator for Hometown Hires, talked about how Peacemakers helps the community with job readiness.

Hometown Hires is a program that seeks to move families out of generational poverty through job training, education and a network of community partners. It was launched in 2019 in partnership with Nash Community College, the United Way of the Tar River Region, N.C. State University and the Upper Coastal Plain Learning Council.

Peacemakers also offers adult education and job readiness courses in partnership with Nash Community College.

Hometown Hires participant Charlie Williams said he felt at peace walking through the doors of Peacemakers for the first time. Coming from a life of detention, drug abuse and homelessness, Williams said he not only learned skills that would prepare him for work but also soft skills such as managing money.

“Through Peacemakers, I’ve developed relationships with people who care about me, who want to see me succeed,” he said. “That’s something I’ve never experienced before.”

Director of Housing and Community Outreach Lemanuel Williams said that housing in South Rocky Mount is not about profitability or popularity.

“Our bottom line is to see our neighbors flourish to the glory of Jesus’ name,” he said.

The housing development program strives to improve and expand the quality of housing, increase the overall homeowner percentage and keep people in their homes.