The Greenwood Promise assures that eligible graduating high school students will be able to attend Piedmont Technical College for two years at no cost to them.

But ask 20-year-old Noel Johnson what the program means, and she’ll use another word: Miracle.

“Going to college, I knew a four-year degree wasn’t for me. It was a fear of how I was going to pay for college that scared me,” Johnson said. “That’s where the Greenwood Promise came in and removed the financial burden for me.”

Fresh off being named a Piedmont Tech honor student, Johnson plans to pursue a career in human resources, eventually giving back to the program that removed a barrier otherwise keeping her from personal success.

Since beginning with the Greenwood County graduating high school class of 2017, enrollment metrics have increased dramatically — a phenomenon many officials attribute to the innovative philanthropic program.

In 2016, 175 Greenwood County high school graduates were enrolled at Piedmont Tech. That figure jumped to 243 in the inaugural year of the Promise and hovered at nearly the same number in 2018 with 236.

On Tuesday, donors and supporters of the Greenwood Promise attended a first-ever appreciation dinner, at which a public marker was unveiled to thank them for their backing. It will be installed at the Uptown Market, said Katie Davenport, the Promise’s executive director.

“I think this is something to be celebrated. Not every town has a promise program because not every town has you all. Not every town cares about the future of the community. Your dollars that you put toward our students, it doesn’t end there when they just go to college. You’re making a future impact on them. I don’t know another program in Greenwood, in South Carolina, in the United States, that’s capable of doing something like this.”

Savannah Campbell, a guidance counselor at Ware Shoals High School, said students there are motivated knowing they can attend Piedmont Tech upon graduation without fear of acquiring debt.

“A lot of work, blood, sweat and tears has gone into this program, and we can definitely see that from our perspective,” she said. “The funds donated by Greenwood Promise sponsors have provided our students with access and opportunity. Our students are now seeing college as a viable option, despite their families’ financial situation.”

Other speakers included Piedmont Tech President Ray Brooks, Self Regional Healthcare CEO Jim Pfeiffer and Heather Simmons Jones, president and CEO of the Greenwood Partnership Alliance.

“The Greenwood Partnership Alliance saw the connectivity and relevancy between workforce development and economic development, and that is how we got to this point today. The main question that we have is where we will find qualified people to fill these jobs. The Promise addresses multiple different paths where we can find people to fill these jobs,” she said. “The workforce dilemma is not unique to Greenwood, but how we address it can be unique. Employers won’t wait for a community to get prepared, the community needs to be prepared.”

Pfeiffer said backing the Promise personally as an investor and in his capacity with Self Regional is a reflection of how significant the program is for future generations. Self Regional, the Self Family Foundation, and the family of L.B. and Peggy Adams were listed Tuesday as “Summa Cum Laude” level donors, each contributing at least $500,000 to the effort.

“We have to give back to our community and make sure that we’re there for the children of this community because it’s going to pay dividends long after most of us are gone. I am convinced that this is the way to go,” Pfeiffer said.

Contact staff writer Adam Benson at 864-943-5650 or on Twitter @ABensonIJ.