A Unique Community – Based Lifelong Learning Institute
2004 – 2009
Maurine T. Nelson
The Adult Learners Institute of Chelsea, Michigan, Inc. (ALI)* was founded in the fall of 2004 by an interested group of residents who partnered with the Chelsea Area Senior Center (CASC) initially, to set up a Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) based on a model generally outlined by the Elderhostel Institute Network (EIN). This model held that an LLI would offer college quality courses to adults who wished to continue their education without the requirement of tests, papers, degree applications and so on. Further EIN suggested that the LLI “must offer the opportunity for socialization and discussion” and further, persons involved in the LLI must take responsibility for running the LLI. The EIN encouraged the development of an academic relationship to an LLI program. While the model allowed for courses to be taught by professional teachers from colleges and universities, peer-member LLI teachers were encouraged also. A college or university, or other interested organization such as a senior center or retirement community may offer classroom space, staff support, and other “umbrella” resources such as insurance, registration and Public Relations (PR) as part of the package offered to lifelong learning programs. (*Abbreviations for all organizations will be used throughout the article once the name and abbreviation has been used).
While the EIN model as it evolved has been hugely successful as seen by reviewing the senior learning programs operating in 350+ colleges and universities in the U.S., the bulk of those programs are offered as part of a college or university program. The Chelsea community – based program was not in a university town, but located in a city about 15 miles from any college or university. The history of the EIN program design can be seen at www.exploritas.com/ein under the title, “A Brief history of LLI”.
The purpose of this article is not only to chronicle a hugely successful ALI lifelong learning community-based program who patterned its program, generally, after the EIN model (which will be described in more detail under Model), but also to show how it developed a stand alone 501c3 nonprofit LLI.
ALI accomplished this “stand-alone” LLI with the resources, support, and dedication of the Chelsea community and its volunteers. This appears at least unusual when one notes that there are only about 20 out of the 350+ U. S. LLI programs operated by an organization other than a college or university, and apparently none that are operated as a free-standing 501c3 nonprofit run by a volunteer Board of Directors. Since this requires extensive participation from the volunteers (taking on not only the substantial effort in curriculum planning, but also taking on the business responsibilities of running an LLI), the ALI model becomes not only a community-based, and one that fulfills the general outline of the EIN model, but with commendable and necessary community involvement.
The ensuing pages will not only illustrate this rather unusual program’s success, but also provide some guidelines and encouragement for other communities wishing to do the same.
CHELSEA, THE COMMUNITY
It is the nature of the Chelsea community and its relationship to ALI that is a major contributor to the success of ALI. So, we need to look at the community in which ALI thrives which was so integral to its success and uniqueness. Some of the “unusualness” is found in its demographics, its size, and educational level of the community. However, and most importantly, it is the spirit of the “people of Chelsea” that evolved over the years which is key to ALI’S success. That spirit is simply Chelsea’s community’s openness – openness to new ideas, to change, to expanding benefits for its citizens and most importantly its responsiveness and commitment to do the hard work to make change happen!!
Description of Chelsea
In the book, Our Town by Cynthia Reynolds, she describes early residents of Chelsea. She says “the first to arrive in southeast Michigan were natives of New England villages or New York State farms…..they were Americans, born and bred, who were making a second – or third – start in life.” This pioneer spirit still appears to be well-grounded and continuing to this day. A recent article on the website http://yaalife.com/chelsea refers to Chelsea as having “good bones”. The land also contributed to the selection and location of Chelsea. Two brothers James and Elisha Congdon were credited with “founding” Chelsea in 1833. Further excerpts from Our Town go on to say, “Chelsea exists because of the commitment of the Congdons and because of the surrounding swamps….. Chelsea is a higher elevation….”
Today, the City of Chelsea sits on 3.34 square miles and has approximately 5000 people within the city. The surrounding townships increase the population to 13,831. Forty-one (41) percent of Chelsea residents aged 25 or older have a bachelor’s or advanced college degree while the national average for this educational level is 24 (per cent). Twenty – five (25) colleges, universities, or seminaries are within 40 miles of Chelsea. However, importantly, especially for the discussion in this article, there are no colleges or universities located within the city of Chelsea. Twenty-five (25) percent of the population is 65 years and over which compares to 12 (per cent) nationally. The median household income in the community at the last census was $51, 132 as compared to $41,994 nationally. Three hundred businesses thrive in Chelsea, most notable among large employers are Jiffy Mix and Chelsea Community Hospital which employs over 1,000 people. Actor Jeff Daniels founded the Purple Rose Theater Company, a not-for-profit arts organization, to develop opportunities for professional actors, directors, playwrights and designers to create exciting, challenging and entertaining productions for our Michigan audience. Since 1991, over 540,000 patrons have attended performances at the Purple Rose Theatre in downtown Chelsea.
Statistics alone will not adequately illustrate the spirit of Chelsea as a community that opens its arms to new possibilities that will benefit its citizens. While this is the hope of any community I suspect, it takes a great many volunteers, working very hard, using all their time, talent and resources, PLUS making a huge commitment of their time to the program’s continuance to make a new community-wide program like this, succeed. The “evidence” of Chelsea’s community spirit and values are demonstrated in the following pages focused on a discussion of the growth and development of one program, the Adult Learners Institute of Chelsea, Michigan, Inc.
As pointed out in the EIN website’s history of LLI’s, there is no “cookie-cutter” model of lifelong learning institutes. To the extent that there is some agreement, upon criteria in all LLI’s, the Chelsea program started out using those guidelines (See “Establishing a Lifelong Learning Institute” at www.exploritas.com/ein). However, as a result of the changes that occurred over the five years this article addresses, ALI became an LLI-plus.
Originally, ALI was a collaborative project with the Chelsea Senior Center and in that regard shared