Seleta Grant-James has the audience in the palm of her hands. She's just completed the public speaking course offered by the East Preston Empowerment Academy.

Her delivery is clear, almost theatrical.

She sounds more like a seasoned preacher than a woman afraid to speak in front of the crowd in the East Preston United Baptist Church, where 60 academy graduates are picking up diplomas.

"I always struggled with that, you know, talking in public or having my voice being heard. So this was a way to help me build that skill," she said.

'Transforming lives'

The faith-based academy, run by community volunteers, was started three years ago by Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, who believes education should be accessible and have the power to transform.

At the East Preston Empowerment Academy, students can learn new skills, finish high school or receive Red Seal certification in a trade, at no cost.

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, founder of East Preston Empowerment Academy

Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard said she hopes the East Preston Empowerment Academy will continue to grow. (CBC)

"It's transforming lives. And that's what education should be. I think about the access I had to higher education, my education has transformed my life. And that's why I'm here. I want other people to have that same experience," Bernard said.

More courses are planned for the fall.

"It has the potential to be so much more. We had 60 participants this year, we could have 600," Bernard said.

The program is in a marginalized African Nova Scotian community where the unemployment rate is very high and it uses instructors from that community, which targets the students who can benefit from further education.

'Learn more'

Rose Johnson is one of the the students who graduated this year. She completed history, communications, public speaking and math courses — at the age of 74.

She did it, she said, mostly to inspire her grandchildren. Pregnant while still in her teens, there wasn't time for the young mother to finish school after Grade 8. Johnson went on to have seven children of her own and adopted seven more.

"I tell my grandchildren now, if you stop school, go back and finish your education and learn more," said Johnson, who is now a great-grandmother.

Johnson said she persevered and came to the church twice a week while instructors helped her through the process until she was able to do homework independently.