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Nov.-Dec. 2011, Vol. XXVI, No. 6
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Want to teach, learn and volunteer?

Are you at risk?Retirees can learn, teach and contribute to their communities all at once through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Northwestern University’s Chicago and Evanston campuses. OLLI is the continuation of a “learning in retirement” program begun 25 years ago at the urging of Newton Minow, a lifetime NU trustee and former FCC chairman.

Bernard Osher, an American businessman and philanthropist, provided funding for the program’s continuation as the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

New in 2011 and continuing in 2012 are Civic Engagement Study Groups. They combine academic study and volunteerism, says Civic Engagement Committee Chair Janet Lang, and complement some 70 non-credit study groups already offered each semester. Nationwide, OLLI operates on 122 campuses.

The first Civic Engagement Study Group provided after-school enrichment in the creative arts for urban youth. A nine-member group studied challenges (gangs, crime) faced by children growing up in urban environments. Then they went to the High Ridge YMCA on Chicago’s North Side to teach singing, dancing, creative arts and handicrafts to about 40 children from age 7 to 12. The final class for the OLLI students asked, “What did we learn?”

“Absolutely adorable” is how OLLI Director Judy Mann describes the children. As for study group participants, they were “incredibly enthusiastic. If they like the experience, they can continue.”

Many intend to do just that. Most Ys can use mentoring, coaching and tutoring volunteers. And they will be welcomed if they return to High Ridge.

“The study group packed a lot of arts programming into a few short weeks, allowing the children to experience a variety of art forms,” says Linda Dean, director of volunteerism for the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago. “Some may well become lifelong interests or hobbies for children in the High Ridge Y School-Age Care Program.”

Teaming with other nonprofits
“So far, Chicago nonprofits have been eager to partner with OLLI, hoping we can prepare volunteers to work with area organizations,” Mann said. “We look forward to reaching out to more nonprofits as our Civic Engagement Study Groups expand.”

Three Civic Engagement Study Groups were offered in Fall 2011. Two were at the Chicago campus: Improving Childhood Literacy and Mentoring Refugees. At Evanston, the course was World Refugees: A Focus on Africa. Under development for spring 2012 is Poverty: Homeless and Hungry in Chicago.

“We really have an outstanding array of retired people who say, ‘Hey, I can still contribute,’” says Lang, 66, who has taken Osher courses seven years. After a corporate career as a human resources executive, she is an almost full-time volunteer.

Sid Mitchell, also 66, is another active volunteer. A former CEO of the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital, he returned to Chicago to retire after a career that took him all over the map. He started volunteering with Catholic Charities about three years ago. “Because of my background in international consulting, I was asked if I would be interested in working with refugees.” He was. And he does.

Mitchell helped refugees set up apartments, find jobs, learn English and just have fun. He once took them to the Air and Water Show. He also started taking classes at the OLLI, encouraged by a neighbor.

Midway through 2011, Lang asked Mitchell if Catholic Charities would be interested in volunteering through a Civic Engagement class. Catholic Charities was “very excited.” Lang and Mitchell became co-coordinators of the refugee course.

Students worked with families by helping adults continue their education and find jobs. They assisted others with daily living skills and English proficiency.

Some OLLI basics
You don’t take tests or get grades in any Osher study group. You don’t have to have a background in the subject, either. And you don’t even have a professor at the front of the class. You do have to share what you learn — to teach each other.

Hundreds of participants prefer this peer-learning approach to typical continuing education. “We currently have more than 750 members on the two campuses,” Mann says. Most are retired and range in age from their 50s to 80s.

The curriculum is not carved in stone, so 2011 courses might not exist if you enroll in 2012. It all depends on Osher’s student-members. They suggest what they want to study: they may even find themselves leading a study group. “All the ideas in the catalogue come from members themselves,” Lang says.

Mann adds, “We are a very member-driven organization. There is a very active (student-comprised) advisory council in Chicago and Evanston.

OLLI offers a variety of membership packages. First-time members can get acquainted with OLLI by selecting a one-semester trial membership for $150. Other membership options range from $360 to $550, and partial scholarships are available.

For more information visit the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute website or call 312-503-7881 for the Chicago campus or 847-492-8204 for the Evanston campus.

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