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Andy Atkinson / Daily Tidings
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s (OLLI) open house drew a crowd at Southern Oregon University's Stevenson Union building.

OLLI builds learning and social connections

What to do after retirement? Sit around and watch TV, dine out or golf once a week with the same people? An affordable education program in the Rogue Valley offers an alternative: a wide array of classes ranging from “Contemporary Poetry” to “Food Preservation” for anyone who wants to continue their education and socialize along the way.

An estimated 900 community members seemed interested in that alternative this week, strolling the halls of Stevenson Union at Southern Oregon University Wednesday during the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute’s 25th open house.

The theme of this year’s event was “learning for life,” so local organizations such as SMART reading, Jackson County Library Services and local school districts had tables at the event, along with local organizations such as ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum, Ashland Independent Film Festival and AAUW of Ashland and Medford. There were also instructors available to describe all 139 courses.

OLLI is a national organization with the motto of “Come for the classes stay for the connections.” Their mission is to provide mental stimulation and social interaction for anyone who wants to continue their education, but tends to gear toward older adults.

Anne Bellegia, OLLI’s community outreach volunteer, and Pauline Black, volunteer coordinator, note the program is almost entirely run by volunteers, of which there were 600 last year.

Bellegia said there are 120 OLLI’s in the country but their only connection is the endowment fund they share. The fund covers a small portion of each institute’s operations, and the rest of the funds come from membership fees and fundraisers put on by volunteers throughout the year.

“The awesome thing about the Bernard Osher Foundation is that they do not dictate how you run your institute,” Bellegia said.

OLLI in the Rogue Valley has about 2,000 members, with a membership fee of $125 that covers the cost of as many courses as the member wishes to take. Bellegia said this OLLI branch has one of the lowest membership fees in the country. She said some require annual fees of up to $700 or a per-course fee. The Rogue Valley branch also offers scholarships to assist some in attending.

“We don’t like to turn people away because they can’t afford it,” Bellegia said. “This is possible because our instructors are free and everything else is pretty much run by volunteers.”

It’s a win-win for everyone. Most of the volunteers are retired and usually have a background in or an affinity for the subject they teach. Bellegia said the work is important to the instructors, who know they have to keep their classes’ attention since there are no grades or credentials at stake.

“It’s a different dynamic for sure,” Bellegia said. “You either have to be interesting or the students will walk.”

Lorraine Vail, former OLLI council president, has taught film classes for four years, but in her case had no prior background in film. Her classes are timed around film festivals in Ashland. The classes view the films in the festivals, then discuss with guest speakers and co-teachers in the field for the following weeks.

“I’m just a film lover,” Vail said. “That’s what’s great about teaching, some people teach in their academic field and others just teach about things they love.”

Peggy Evans, council member, has been teaching OLLI classes since 2004, mostly music and philanthropy. This fall she’s teaching “Sacred Anthems in English” and “How to be a Better Philanthropist.”

“We should never stop learning,” Evans said. “When I was growing up, my dad would say every day ‘and what did you learn today?’ and shouldn’t that continue throughout life?”

Sandy Theis has been a member since 2008 and said joining OLLI was a given after she retired because her husband has been taking classes for years. She’s done curriculum work her entire life and so naturally joined the group’s curriculum committee as a volunteer while taking courses as a student simultaneously. She also began facilitating courses. For example, after participating in the first Team Ashland, a citizen education series, she led a course explaining the inner workings of the city of Ashland.

Theis said OLLI encourages instructors to take a break in the middle of the class so everyone may socialize.

“That’s why I do it,” Theis said. “Because I like to meet people.”

More than 200 new members signed up at the open house, according to Rob Casserly, program manager.

For more information or to register for courses, visit https://inside.sou.edu/olli.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

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