PITTSFIELD — Long after receiving their master's degrees and Ph.D.s, some people still want to learn, to grow and have fun in their community.
For those types of people, there's the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College. While its main purpose is providing non-credit enrichment classes and workshops for people over the age of 50, OLLI at BCC is open to anyone interested in taking a course or meeting and mingling with like-minded people in the Berkshires.
Formed in 1994, with about 34 members, as the Berkshire Institute of Lifetime Learning (BILL), the program officially evolved to become in 2007, an OLLI supported by the nationally serving Bernard Osher Foundation.
Today, OLLI at BCC has more than 1,050 paid memberships ($50 annually), and welcomes a variety of people and personalities.
"The thing I'm most impressed with is how the composition of the group is based on a variety of experiences. Our members and teachers are accountants and attorneys, university professors and educators, architects, scientists, engineers, arts and theater arts people," said Leonard "Lenny" Tabs, president of the board of OLLI at BCC.
"It's a treasure trove of experience and knowledge," said Megan Whilden, who serves as the executive director of the organization.
To leverage the institutional knowledge of its members, Whilden said the organization recently adopted a new strategic plan that prioritizes community engagement, "and we're excited about it," she said.
The organization is run by its members, many of whom are retirees and second homeowners in the Berkshires who just want to help out and move OLLI toward having a more active role within the greater community.
"Our recently completed strategic plan focuses on increasing community engagement in a variety of ways, including a proposed Community Leadership Academy, that would train retired community members to serve as volunteer leaders both at OLLI and in the many non-profit, municipal and community organizations throughout the county," said Whilden.
In addition to volunteering to teach or paying tuition to attend a class, OLLI members have helped re-establish a mentoring program that was formed about two years ago.
Carole Siegel co-chairs with Claudia Shuster the committee for the Mentoring for Success program, which matches OLLI members' skills and experiences with the interests of students attending Berkshire Community College.
"It's designed for students going on to a four-year college," said Siegel. The OLLI mentors act as resources to help guide BCC students toward searching for college and workforce options, to help them set goals and support them with college visits, applications and interviews. Currently, the program has 16 mentoring pairs, with a waiting list of OLLI mentors who seek to be matched with a student.
Siegel, a longtime Berkshire County resident, joined OLLI when it was BILL, noting that, "I always thought it was wonderful to be able to add to the quality of life here."
Tabs and his wife, Ellen, got involved with OLLI after they moved from Manhattan to West Stockbridge in 2008. He has led a current events discussion group each spring and fall since 2009.
"We thought, why not give back to the area and give back to the college?" said Tabs.
In return, he said he's gained a network of friends and colleagues, and also new experiences.
New to OLLI at BCC is its Performing Arts Initiative, spearheaded by OLLI members, Karel Fisher, Nancy Vale and Barbara Waldinger — all experienced theater instructors — and Chelly Sterman, Lance Sterman and Naomi Spatz. The program includes theater outings, special talkbacks, OLLI member discounts to shows and partnerships with Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, WAM Theatre and Barrington Stage Company.
Williamstown Theatre Festival is a new partner coming on this spring, with a new community engagement initiative of its own — giving OLLI members free acting and play writing workshops. The next day of sessions will be March 22.
The 2016 OLLI calendar will also offer play reading courses and trips that offer behind-the-scenes looks at area theater companies and their productions. The spring semester starts April 8.
Another new arts-oriented partnership is with The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, which will focus on books related to the Mahaiwe's upcoming performances, "deepening people's experiences in both directions," said Whilden, and a new workshop series with WAM Theatre called "Fresh Takes/Your Take." A partnership with the WordXWord Festival is also in the works.
As OLLIs continue to grow nationwide — there are 119 across the country, in every state, totalling some 150,000 members — older generations are finding themselves engaged, enlightened and empowered to enjoy and take part in life after retirement.
In addition to a low membership fee, Tabs noted that OLLI at BCC offers scholarships and rolling admission. The institute is now averaging 85 courses across four semesters. Tabs said the organization is working to increase its marketing and community outreach campaigns to reach people who may be isolated or new to the community, or who still aren't aware of the organization.
OLLI at BCC has also become an active partner in the Age-Friendly Berkshires initiative, which carries a similar mission of keeping people over the age of 50 actively engaged in county operations and life.
"There are so many ways this can be a growing organization," said Siegel, "It's great for people and the community benefits from that."
Jenn Smith can be reached at 413-496-6239.
OLLI Spring semester
The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Berkshire Community College will host its Spring Open House from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, April 5, at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne Bernstein Theatre in Lenox. Free and open to the public, there will be refreshments and the opportunity to hear from a number of spring instructors and OLLI members. A new member special will be offered at this event for those who join for the first time, which will include a free class ($45 value) with a paid membership.
Upcoming spring classes included topics ranging from "Today's Headlines," "History of Gangs," "Birding in the Berkshires," "Our Health Care System Decoded," "Aspects of Jazz," and much more.
For more information, visit www.BerkshireOLLI.org or call 413-236-2190.