The idea Peacemakers was conceived in 1999 by Steve and Phil Thomas and Wes and Karen Higginbotham, sparked by many long discussions, Steve’s research into Aikido and nonviolent resistance, and their church small group’s desire to serve their community. As Wes was already a Tae Kwon Do instructor at the Goshen Tae Kwon Do Academy, this martial art seemed to be a strong candidate for the team’s desire to teach confidence, character, conflict skills, and peacemaking.
Peacemakers’ first classes in 2000 were part of the Boys and Girls Club in Goshen. The following year, additional classes were added at the Boys and Girls Club, conversations began with the Community Corrections Advisory Board, and Peacemakers finished the first edition of their training manual. Over the next three years, the program continued to expand, adding classes and workshops to Chamberlain Elementary School, Bethany Middle School, Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, Bashor Homes, Walnut Hills Mennonite Church, Goshen College, and more. Peacemakers incorporated as a non-profit in 2003. During this time, interest in Peacemakers extended far beyond Goshen; the Peacemakers manual was being distributed in Ohio, Colorado, and Guatemala.
For the first several years of its existence, the Peacemakers program was taught all over Elkhart County, but had no place of its own to call home. During a retreat in 2004, the Board began to dream of what a permanent training location might look like, a Peacemakers Academy. Energy quickly built behind this idea, and many business and organizations around Goshen supported it with generous donations. Construction took place during the summer of 2005, and classes at the Academy began that September.
Between 2005 and 2011, Peacemakers’ experienced ongoing growth; the Academy enrolled more students and added classes, as well as continued classes at the Boys and Girls Club, Oaklawn, and several Goshen elementary schools. Peacemaking and Safety workshops were taught at many schools (including Goshen College, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and the University of Notre Dame), churches, a women’s shelter and other non-profits, a yoga studio, and more. During this time, Peacemakers also finalized their EmPower curriculum, a manual for training Peacemakers that can easily adapt to many different class formats and activities, and a Peacemakers affiliate project started in the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park under the leadership of Tim Peebles.
Since 2011, Peacemakers has been through several seasons of transition and change. In 2011, Steve Thomas stepped away from Peacemakers to focus on training and pastoral work in other areas; his brother Phil was already occupied with international peacebuilding work. Wes and Karen continued to lead Peacemakers, focusing their attention on teaching at the Academy and stepping away from most community classes. When Wes and Karen retired in 2015, leadership was handed to Kris Polega, an assistant instructor who had earned her black belt at Peacemakers with her children, and Nicholas Peebles, an assistant instructor from the Rogers Park affiliate and student at Goshen College. When Nicholas moved away from Goshen in 2017, he was replaced by Peter Anderson; when Peter moved away in 2019, he was replaced by Emily Stoltzfus. Kris and Emily continue to lead Peacemakers and teach at the Academy.
This period of transition has also served as a season of reflection and refinement. When Nicholas started teaching at Peacemakers, he brought an expertise in teaching Tae Kwon Do forms, and the Academy began teaching the forms of the International Tae Kwon Do Federation. Peter brought expertise in self-defense, sparring, and conflict transformation; during his tenure, he redesigned the self-defense curriculum and incorporated mindfulness and Nonviolent Communication practices into the Peacemaking curriculum. Now, Emily brings her expertise in teaching social and behavioral skills in schools, while Kris continues to keep Peacemakers’ core ethos at the heart of the program, re-envisioning the future of the Academy’s role in the Goshen community.