Lee Syria presents certificate to graduate Marcia Hoffmann.

The excitement in the air was palpable last May as the 14 nervous graduates prepared — much like high school seniors across the country — for their walk down the aisle to “Pomp and Circumstance.” But these “seniors” were of a different ilk: they are residents of UCC-related Piedmont Crossing, an older adult community in Thomasville, N.C., and were celebrating their graduation from the inaugural year of Piedmont’s innovative PEAK program.

PEAK — Piedmont Enrichment and Knowledge — is the brainchild of Joy Cline, chief marketing officer for United Church Homes and Services, of which Piedmont Crossing is a part.

“I began thinking about what I would want in a retirement community,” Cline says. “We all want purpose, and often that comes with continuous learning. A team of us met at Piedmont Crossing and as the excitement grew for the program, so did the program! It became a program with criteria for graduation to keep the residents engaged.”

The PEAK program had a short incubation period for its first year — just four weeks. Meeting once a week, the planning team incorporated some events already scheduled, plus added new ones.

The results were instantaneous, partially because offerings include “something for everyone,” says Cline. To encourage participation, Cline sends quarterly flyers outlining the upcoming PEAK activities and events. Residents who attend a minimum of 10 programs throughout the 9-month “school year” (September through May) graduate with a certificate and ceremony.

Lee Syria and Doug Russell prepare to congratulate graduates.

The 2018-2019 offerings included off-site activities for residents only to such locales as the Southern Grace Distilleries, the first distillery located in a former prison; a popcorn farm; and the Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, N.C. On-campus offerings, which are open to the whole community, included guest speakers, historical presentations, and musical performances.

Through PEAK, residents keep their minds sharp and enhance their cognitive skills, says Cline, plus the program increases their avenues for socialization. But no one was prepared for just how involved residents have become.

“We have residents who will postpone a doc appointment to attend,” says Cline, because “they don’t want to be the one that will not graduate!”

The residents also find graduating meaningful. One couple was “so excited they invited family to attend,” Cline adds. The husband’s father and their son attended the graduation as a show of support.

During the graduation ceremony May 14, Doug Russell, Piedmont Crossing’s executive director, and Lee Syria, president and CEO of United Church Homes and Services, gave commencement remarks.

“We are extremely proud of the accomplishments of these 14 residents,” Syria told attendees. “They are setting the standard for lifelong learning and proving that older adults yearn to expand their knowledge.”

Graduates Bill and Morning Lopp were two of the proud graduates.

The new “school year” has already begun for the PEAK program. Thanks to a partnership with the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, new interactive events are among the program’s activities. Recently, Piedmont residents had the opportunity to participate in an online walk through of the Ford Theatre. In a presentation that felt like attendees were really there, a detective told the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, showing the shooting from various angles, John Wilkes Booth’s escape route, and more.

Cline says she is looking forward to one December program in particular. “We will hear from the wife of Charles Dickens [played by an impersonator] about their lives and their home,” she says. “We also will be serving her favorite tea cakes!”

For recent PEAK graduate Bill Lopp, PEAK is more than any one of its many offerings. “I have always found joy in learning,” says Lopp. “PEAK gives us easy access to a variety of quality speakers and programs.”