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 all of the benefits of the Senior Center’s nonprofit status. This partnership was extremely important to the institute’s growth in terms of insurance coverage, being able to offer tax deductions for donations, being able to submit grant applications as a nonprofit, using the Senior Center’s classroom space, “free” public relations to all of the Senior Center’s membership, and so on. Simply said, as a collaborative project of the Senior Center, ALI had an organizational home. Chelsea’s Senior Center is located in the old high school building. Classroom usage had to be coordinated with the Senior Center and Chelsea School Adult Education Department located in the same building causing difficulties and frustrations for both the Senior Center and ALI.
The departure from being part of the Senior Center in 2007 to developing a stand-alone nonprofit “community-wide” organization totally run by the volunteers was significant. Not only was ALI not housed in a college or university wide program with all the support that implies, but now it was establishing itself as a stand-alone organization with all of the responsibilities required to run such a nonprofit. It should be noted that the author of this article queried programs listed in EIN that were not clearly under the auspices of a college or university. She generally found that all of the programs that responded (7 out 11) were “housed” in a senior center, a Temple, or a retirement community – none of the respondents were stand-alone nonprofits. (See/request anonymous questionnaire results). It is hoped that sharing this experience and Chelsea’s success, will provide interest for other communities considering starting an LLI and the organizational support required.
ALI Program Model
The EIN model suggests, that “for lifelong learning institute(s) that do NOT have an academic host, but want to be affiliated with the Elderhostel Institute network, we offer the following guidelines:
1 – Courses, although non-credit in nature, must be of academic quality…
2 – LLI’s must offer the opportunity for socialization and discussion with others
who have similar learning interests…
3 – EIN stresses the value of and encourages the development of an academic
relationship of some sort…
4 – Members should take the responsibility for running their lifelong learning
institute, in other words they take “ownership”…
5 – Lifelong learning Institutes that do not have an academic host must carry their
own liability insurance …”
The ALI program started out by adopting and implementing the following guidelines (each ALI guideline is keyed to one of the five EIN points above):
- develop an advisory group to set up and run the overall program (4)
- develop a name and a mission statement (4)
- use a Letter of Understanding between the Senior Center and ALI (4)
- seek college and/or university’s cooperation and collaboration (3)
- establish a curriculum for each semester (1)
- engage instructors offered by nearby colleges, universities and from the community (3)
- engage instructors (except for agreements faculty had with a college) who would not be reimbursed by ALI for their teaching services (3)
- contracting for classroom space at the Senior Center and throughout the community on a rent-free basis (4)
- establish a membership class and fee (although abolished 2009) – (4)
- establish a fee for each class (4)
- acknowledge that the program would be self-supporting (4)
- arrange for an organizational fee for residents of two local retirement communities (4)
- conduct an initial fundraising program, after which the institute would be self-supporting (4)
- apply for grant funding for audio- visual equipment (4)
- establish committees as needed (Curriculum, Registration, Public Relations, Fundraising, Website, Membership, Finance, Audio-Visual) (4)
- establish, accept, the idea that all persons involved in ALI be volunteers (4)
- develop a peer-led policy of involvement (2)
- set up a class schedule that arranged times from 10 – 12 and 1 – 3 on Monday through Friday, and some evening classes (4)
- develop a policy that invited ALL adults to participate, however, by the very nature of the time of classes, semi and fully retired persons would be targeted (2)
- develop a policy that classes did NOT require written papers and tests (2)
- develop a policy that required NO particular educational level to register for classes (2)
- develop a policy that set class length from one session to eight sessions (4)
- develop a broad range of topics for classes to include college-quality courses but not limited to history, music, language, current events, and special interest classes, etc. When appropriate, tours are included at the instructors’ request.
While it should be noted that not all of these guidelines given above, developed smoothly or “at once” — succeed they did. More importantly, the people who were attracted to serve on this early advisory group and subsequent Board of Directors were of exceptional talent and had a willingness to give an unprecedented amount of time in the use of their expertise, influence, and support to make sure the program took off and succeeded. Local business people, attorneys, professional engineers, teachers, realtors, college professors, doctors, computer savvy business persons, long-time contributors from several of Chelsea’s boards, nurses, and long-time members of the Chelsea community, were just some of the local volunteers who were recruited or in fact asked, to be included in the early development of the program.
The author offered to help start the program in Chelsea as she had started what turned out to be a successful 10-year LLI in another state and therefore had a great deal of experience to bring to the program. After she relocated to Chelsea she met with and discussed this type of a program with Chelsea’s Mayor. The Mayor not only liked the program, but offered support by giving names and organizational contacts to call. From that point on, the Mayor served on the advisory group for a time, and enthusiastically supported the program until her other responsibilities called her elsewhere. Her support was invaluable in getting ALI started.
The Chelsea Area Senior Center (CASC)
The first partner that ALI had was The Chelsea Senior Center. In the early development of ALI, staff and board members of the Senior Center with ALI representatives, set up a relationship between the two organizations as a collaborative project of the Senior Center. In that relationship, ALI enjoyed all of the benefits of the nonprofit status of the Senior Center. This meant that ALI would be covered with such things as insurance, classrooms, etc. as noted earlier.
In order to carry out this relationship, the two organizations agreed upon and were signatories of a “Letter of Understanding” which essentially outlined who did what. This LOU operated well for a couple of years, and then changes occurred that highlighted the different missions of the two organizations, which brought restraints in how ALI wanted to conduct its program, namely, offering classes outside of the Chelsea area when an opportunity arose, and paying for classroom space. Thus, it was mutually agreed that ALI would seek 501c3 status and develop programming on its own. It must be said, however, that the congeniality and support of the Senior Center during the period that ALI was making the nonprofit application was unprecedented. The Senior Center continued support for ALI’s insurance, continuing help with PR, “giving” the audio-visual equipment to ALI that had been obtained by a grant awarded to ALI through the Senior Center’s nonprofit status, and the general support that was immeasurable. ALI was awarded 501c3 status in late September of 2007. Through all of this, the Senior Center “set the bar” for organizational cooperation that has been the hallmark of Chelsea. ALI and the Senior Center continue to work together in terms of representatives on their respective boards, and mutual PR between the two, plus continuing to seek ways to offer classes together.
In the fall of 2004, early presentations were made to Chelsea organizations that might have interest in such a project for the purpose of enlisting volunteers, participants and support from each organization and its members. Following are the partners that were contacted and agreed to participate with ALI from the onset:
Chelsea Retirement Community (CRC)
Silver Maples (SM)
The Chelsea Community Hospital (CCH)
Washtenaw Community College (WCC)
Siena Heights University (SHU)
While each partner has contributed valuable advice, space, PR, instructors, and overall support to ALI, all have maintained an extremely well-connected relationship with ALI from the beginning in 2004 to this date. As the ALI program developed, it did so with its strong connections to organizations and the community. It has been in the relationships developed, which were nurtured by regular contact that gained strength over the years, that resulted in “ownership” by all – each bringing some part of the whole to make the program succeed. The importance of this kind of partnering cannot be underestimated in its value to a community-wide program.
Early in the planning, the ALI advisory group sought the cooperation of local colleges and universities. Siena Heights University (SHU), located in Adrian, Michigan about 30 miles away – and Washtenaw Community College (WCC), located about 20 miles away were both interested in helping ALI. Both provided instructors to the program, although SHU retired its partnership in 2007.
Sienna Heights University’s English Department Chairperson served on ALI’s Curriculum Committee and provided the connection between ALI and SHU. She was a full-time professor at SHU who also taught several classes for ALI. She was always available for consultation. Two instructors from SHU continued to teach ALI courses well after the university’s formal involvement terminated. Both the writing classes and Values and Videos classes introduced by these two instructors were extremely popular and filled each time they were offered.
A member of the early ALI Advisory Group and resident of Chelsea, was a member of the WCC Board of Trustees and was able to provide the important connection to the WCC President and staff. As a result, the President of WCC attended some early Advisory Group meetings and offered five instructors to the program and does so to this date. Since that time, WCC has an arrangement with ALI as a “cooperative” organization who provides ALI not only with a representative to sit on the ALI Board of Directors, but also continues to advertise ALI’s program in their catalogue, and provide 5 instructors each of the two semesters ALI offers classes. WCC’s continued support has been instrumental to the growth of the program not only because of the points mentioned above, but also because the quality of instructors who have taught, and received rave reviews and are requested to return on a regular basis. The value of WCC’s contribution cannot be overestimated.
Chelsea has 3 retirement communities – The Chelsea Retirement Community (CRC, The Pines, and Silver Maples).
The Chelsea Retirement Community (CRC) owned by United Methodist Retirement Communities is a CCRC, Continuing Care Retirement that offers independent living, assisted living, a rehabilitation center and a memory care residence. There are 363 people that reside on the campus. CRC provides ALI with a representative to the early advisory and now Board of Directors, with an office, and a classroom. This partnership evolved over the course of several years with both organizations making the most of “shared resources”.
Silver Maples is a retirement community that provides independent and assisted living and has about 150 residents. Silver Maples is a relatively new facility, built in 1997. The executive director and the activities director have been instrumental in providing ALI space and assistance in A-V equipment for instructors, in offering their large facility for the ALI Kick-off each semester, and also providing PR to all of their residents and potential residents.
The Silver Maples Activities Director states, “We’ve been delighted to be a part of ALI, particularly hosting classes, as well as the Kick Off events. It is truly a win-win scenario. Our residents enjoy high quality educational classes without having to drive to other locations, and ALI utilizes our community room and technology.”
The Pines provides affordable senior independent living. There are about 98 units and over 100 residents. The manager of that facility serves on ALI’s Board of Directors and assists in providing classroom space regularly. Several classes have been held there, and this facility also provides ALI a “special” resource – a kitchen where classes on international cooking, for example have been held with smashing success.
Chelsea Community Hospital
Chelsea Community Hospital (CCH) is a not-for-profit hospital established in 1970. CCH is nationally recognized for both quality of care and patient satisfaction by national ranking organization Press Ganey, and is accredited by the Joint Commission. CCH’s Director of Community and Senior Health Services has participated as a partner with ALI since 2004 and continues to serve on the ALI Board of Directors. She has made classroom space available at the hospital, as well as advertising for ALI and through her, CCH gives full support of the program.
In conclusion, it should be noted that many of the organizational partners offer their own classes to their residents. It has worked out that none of these various classes conflict with the programs offered by ALI. In the very few cases that they have, the conflict has been quickly resolved on who will offer what and when and how.
In fall of 2007, the Adult Learners Institute of Chelsea, MI, Inc. was awarded 501c3 status and because of that and its new status and being incorporated in the state of Michigan, it developed bylaws, elected officers and a Board of Directors as required by law. The goal was to be self-sustaining. The process was guided by a local attorney who was also an ALI board member.
ALI not only had a 20–course curriculum to establish (which in and of itself is a substantial undertaking on a community-wide basis), but it also had all of the various aspects of a nonprofit to run, most notably to take in enough money to cover not only “old” expenses (such as PR), but now the new costs of insurance, supplies, equipment, etc. Because of the strong community ties developed to this point, ALI could continue to count on:
- all of the partners and their support as noted above
- rent-free classroom space from three retirement facilities, hospital, and local businesses where classes were held (i.e. Mission Marketplace, Common Grill, etc.)
- unlimited copying privileges
- an unbelievable group of volunteers who functioned as their Board of Directors, members of 9 committees, local instructors, and all kinds of one-time helpers
- a supportive community of those that attended and paid registration/class fees (with a mailing list of about 550)
- continued support from local instructors to teach without reimbursement
- advice and consultation from its partners to help with problems as they arose
Thus the program model of class offerings and the way they were provided did not change: however, the business responsibilities did.
Curriculum Development 2005 – 2010
The first semester of classes held in the fall of 2005 was developed by the Curriculum Committee. Six classes were held including: History of Western Washtenaw County, Miracles and Mysteries, Writing Your Life Story, Values and Videos, Welcome to Brazil, and Shakespeare in His Time and Today. A mailing was made of over 3600 households in the Chelsea area of persons over 60 years of age. A Kick Off was scheduled approximately 6 weeks before the first class was scheduled. Over 75 people attended the first ALI Kick Off where individuals could register for classes and socialize during the Kick Off. Registration was not allowed until the Kick Off. A website was developed to keep registrants informed on class offerings and it is www.adultlearnersinstitute.org
The instructors who taught that first semester included individuals from Sienna Heights University, Washtenaw Community College and members of the Chelsea-area community.
All of the courses were scheduled at several classrooms throughout the community and included sites at the senior center, and both of the retirement communities. Audio-visual equipment used was that provided at each location, however, ALI had an energetic, organized, and equipment-knowledgeable A-V individual who took responsibility for not only monitoring the equipment eventually obtained through grants, but trained each A-V assistant, and developed the organizational plan to provide each class with a trained assistant and confirmed that the assistance took place. He and members of the A-V committee do so to this date. Among the many responsibilities the curriculum committee had, was the design of evaluations to be distributed at the end of each course . As time and experience dictated, the evaluation form has changed over the years to better meet the needs of participants. Each class was assigned a class assistant. The registration committee developed and administered this task. They assigned class assistants to take attendance, make administrative announcements and introduce the instructor to the class. All classes held that first 2005 semester, met the minimum registration requirements, and a couple of them were oversubscribed with a total registration of 136 class seats.
As I review the above, I should point out that all of these organizational procedures and policies developed “as needed” – so when I say such and such a committee, more often than not, committees were people who “emerged” as individuals interested in taking on an area of responsibility i.e. curriculum, registration, public relations, etc. and then did it. However, all of the procedures and policies that came out of “solving these problems” were formalized into a “policy” by a chairperson and brought before the advisory group for comment-change-approval before any were implemented. This is done now, by a meeting of chairpersons who recommend policy-procedures to the Board of Directors. Very importantly, the organizational responsibilities for ALI were always accountable to the “peer-led” group, who were the advisory group and now the Board of Directors. However, when ALI was operating as a collaborative project of the senior center, representatives of ALI attended and reported its activities to the Chelsea Senior Center Board of Directors.
The curriculum committee made use of an early survey conducted by the senior center staff regarding course topics. Other sources for obtaining topics were the EIN website articles, word of mouth, and eventually the feedback from the evaluation forms. Obviously, the consultation from both the SHU and WCC representatives were invaluable in considering college quality courses that would be interesting to members of the Chelsea-area community. ALI attracted not only well qualified instructors with expertise in their specialty topic, but in some cases, were well-known figures too. Jack Lousma, an astronaut, taught a class on Perspectives in Space and several other instructors served on national commissions. The topics ALI selected were diverse and provided a balance of interests to participants.
In 2010, through the transition from collaborative project at the senior center to stand -alone nonprofit, ALI has grown. Twenty courses are being offered EACH semester (See Appendix B for ALL classes 2002-2010), attracting 350+ registered class seats, and continuing to meet the minimum registration requirements for each class. This“pace” is maintained through the continuing “supports” from the community and the unprecedented commitment and hard work by the volunteers. So that there is still:
- a kickoff about 6 weeks before each semester
- registration still does not “open” until kick off
- a policy that classes are filled on a “first come first serve” basis
- a membership fee has been converted into a registration fee + class fees
- A-V support and there are now 2 complete sets of identical A-V equipment obtained through two grants
- continued A-V support by training volunteers on the equipment, by providing support to each class, monitoring equipment and needs of same
- classes being held in different locations throughout the community rent-free
- evaluations distributed to each class which are tabulated and reported to the board which affects topic selection, class management, and overall operations
- a class assistant assigned to each class, a training session for all class assistants
Just a word about registration of participants and data base management…. Often we hear that the current population of seniors is not very computer-savvy. ALI has experienced that about 50% of our members are regular computer users. When ALI began, we needed a system of registering participants, as well as tracking their participation. Our experience with committee volunteers working on registration, initially, was their excellent computer skills. Thus from the onset we had a very good system of tracking our registrants. This tracking was done through Excel. As new registration committee volunteers came on board, the system was changed to Access. We now have a technology information committee with a very knowledgeable volunteer to facilitate all of our data management, and we have contracted help from a part-time independent contractor. In addition to registering participants at Kick Off, and tracking registrants, the board is provided with reports on demographics, patterns of registration throughout the semester, lists of who is on what committee, etc. in a very timely way. This is a huge part of the success of the program because it amounts to effective communications to and about all of participants and it provides the board with a “measure” of the program’s success or highlights areas that need improvement. Excellent policies have been developed by the ALI Registration Committee, in cooperation with the technology and curriculum committee as they responded to all of the issues involved in this process. Setting up this system “from scratch” has been one of the greatest efforts of the ALI program, and one of the greatest challenges anyone considering a community-based LLI program should evaluate. ALI has gone from volunteers maintaining data “in their home computers” to the purchase of an office computer where data is stored and managed, overseen by an ALI technology committee with help from a part-time independent contractor.
Public Relations (PR) and “getting the word out”
Although from the onset, ALI adopted a policy that the program would be self-supporting, the advisory group did approve one initial fundraiser to assist in covering the costs of the first marketing efforts. Again, the community had the talent — a long-time resident volunteered to help in drafting the letter and signing same, that went out to solicit funds. ALI was very successful in obtaining funds, but it should be noted that all members of the advisory group made monetary donations to this initial and only fundraising effort.
Following that one fundraiser, ALI has set up fees to cover the costs of its programming. However, two grants were solicited for Audio-Visual equipment and two grants were awarded, so that ALI has two identical, up- to- date sets of A-V equipment to make available to instructors of its classes. Since classes were held throughout the community, this ensured the availability of necessary A-V equipment at all times.
Since receipt of those two initial sources of income not related to fee-collection, ALI has conducted an extensive program of public relations to inform the Chelsea area residents of ALI. Following are some examples of these PR efforts:
– participated in sidewalk booth for the summer festival
– develop rapport with local Senior Citizen chapters
– contact all local newspapers
– contact Retirement Homes
– contact area churches-distribute ALI information in bulletins, newsletters and/or place ALI brochures in prominent display areas.
– participate at Chelsea Senior Citizens “Unlimited” (Expo) and Chelsea Fair with booths.
– put notice on bulletin boards around town (Chelsea State Bank, ACO Hardware, Pamida, etc.)
– other published works may include Senior Health Connections at Chelsea Community Hospital, Senior Preferences (Washtenaw Senior Resource, Independent Living Newsletter, Coffee News).
– represent ALI at Chamber of Commerce, etc.
– provide Newcomer’s group with ALI catalogues and brochures
It should be noted that one major area of PR is the ALI website, www.adultlearnersinstitute.org which was developed the first year of operations again by a very computer-knowledgeable ALI volunteer. This website serves not only PR, but information about classes, the board and committees, mission statement, news articles, direction to classes, instructor bios, a calendar, and a way to contact ALI board.
Committees in general
ALI does have 9 committees that represent the various “areas of jobs to be done” (See Appendix C for names of the committees). Those committees have defined the responsibility each “owns” and that is reviewed annually by the board. The committee responsibilities are also shared with “new volunteers” as orientation to the tasks to be accomplished, whether they are serving on a long-term appointment or have offered one-time help. Furthermore, all ALI activities are directed by the policies and procedures that are developed and approved by the board as ALI grows and confronts new problems and solves them. These policies and procedures run the gamut from defining roles and responsibilities (not covered in the bylaws) to specific registration policies and procedures, curriculum guidelines, relevant in each area.
Volunteers and volunteerism
Several who have served on this LLI program often wonder, “Where did these whiz kids come from” that put together this successful community-based program? To borrow a biblical reference,–“Unto everything there is a season”– and it truly appears that it was the time and place for Chelsea to have a LLI program. In actuality, however, it was also a lot of hard work done by people who lived in Chelsea or had newly moved there, who believed in the merits of the program, and were willing to try and solve problems together repeatedly, who were extremely resourceful in their approach to problem solving, who always respected each person’s contribution, even if it was contrary to their own, and were endowed with huge amounts of:
Adherence to good business practices
Belief in excellence
Willingness to learn new skills
Fortitude, endurance, and willingness to put program ahead of self
And a “boat-load of hospitality”…which encouraged the sociability people experienced.
All of these characteristics were freely given, sometimes under duress of time deadlines, or in the midst of strong philosophical differences that people were able to set aside in finding solutions for the common good so the program did not fail. Equally impressive are the chairpersons, officers and board members who made themselves available at any time, even while on vacation! What was especially gratifying is the number of volunteers who expressed their delight in the “new learnings” they gained in getting their jobs done.
Simply said, they did things they had never done before and, in fact, mastered many new experiences and responsibilities, along with doing jobs that were not at the top of their “like to” list, but needed to be done.
What one learns about volunteerism, especially with this population, is that by and large organizations should follow a principle which takes its lead from the volunteer – namely that each person self-selects the area of their expertise, comfort level, time availability and therefore willingness of where and how he or she will serve. Accepting this philosophy and pattern of engaging volunteers, usually evolves into the development of a very committed volunteer whether their contribution is for one hour or as a committee chair or board member serving for many, many hours.
Where are we? Measures of Success
To say that the following discussion of ALI’s growth is a broad-brush description, is an understatement of the highest degree – but here it is. ALI’s financial position is sound. There is a local volunteer CPA who consults with ALI’s Financial Committee periodically to suggest changes to procedures, such as bookkeeping practices, the way we enter data. Currently, ALI maintains a fee schedule that covers the expenses of its activities, maintains a reserve, and supports a part-time independent contractor. Not only was there a need to centralize operations in an ALI office, donated for that purpose, but many chairpersons, officer-volunteers were experiencing the “overwork” that comes with doing all of the administrative tasks as well as the responsibility of developing policy and running the overall institute operations.
ALI sets up a minimum and maximum number of registrants that will be allowed for each class. To some degree this number is driven by the instructor, the size of the classroom available, and in the case of WCC college instructors, by guidelines provided by the college. ALI met the minimum enrollment for classes over the past 10 semesters of its existence. A class has not ever been cancelled for low enrollment. There have been – on average – at least 2 to 3 classes each semester– that have been oversubscribed and therefore when appropriate and feasible with the instructor, some classes have been repeated. 141 courses have been offered during the period of 2005 until 2010; and currently ALI is offering 20 courses per semester.
There are two Kick Off sessions held before the start of each semester and there are still a solid number of persons attending, although with increased knowledge of the registration process – meaning that people can register, once Kick Off has been held – participants are getting comfortable with registering by mail also. Nonetheless, usually anywhere from 60 to 95 people attend a Kick Off in August and January, so one of the benefits can be seen as purely social and valuable to building “community” with this program.
It should be noted that ALI’s leadership enlisted the help of several partnering organizations from the onset as noted earlier, with the help of the Mayor. However, of equal importance, and certainly as one of the measures of continued success, is the continued support and involvement of all of those original organizational partners, as well as new ones that have emerged.
Finally, ALI participated in a survey of LLI’s conducted in 2009 by Dr. Barbara Cherem, a University of Michigan – Flint researcher attempting to identify the motivations for participants of these programs. Several other southeastern Michigan LLI’s were surveyed as well. Previously, the presumed general benefits provided by an LLI were an opportunity for social interaction amongst participants, continued intellectual stimulation which in turn improves quality of life, and/or a chance to be involved with multiple community organizations by providing an opportunity to volunteer.
Cherem set out to examine nine motives to participate in an LLI or any other learning initiative such as a class or lecture. These motives (Boshier.1987) are a common set of motives in the adult development literature. They are: intellectual interest; cognitive stimulation; improve a sense of purpose and well-being; social contact; to cope with change; social stimulation; community service; to express self; and external expectations (e.g. a cajoling spouse). Cherem found that participants of the local LLI’s surveyed, rated intellectual stimulation as first, along with cognitive interest. Most rated social stimulation and giving a “sense of purpose” second. However, only Chelsea’s LLI rated two other motivations equally to those noted above. The ALI participants’ additional secondary motives for involvement in learning were community service, as well as a chance to express themselves. Both of these latter ratings by ALI participants seemed to imply that the impact of a community-based LLI confirmed its “community” benefits and purpose. No other senior groups or seniors generally from smaller, less organized settings, listed these motives as particularly powerful to them. Whereas the primary motives are common ones in the adult development literature, these were quite unique to the Chelsea ALI participant seniors.
Finally, and most importantly, one always comes back to the importance of the volunteers and “worker-bees” who started and grew the ALI program. Their hard work, talents, perseverance, and dedication to this program have, hopefully, been communicated effectively throughout this article, and by now are “felt” by the reader. However, we must end with a special word about the leadership of this program.
Several reviewers of this article, and my fellow volunteers working in this program said, “Maurine you need to address your contribution as leader of ALI for the last five years.” That is a tough thing to do, not only because it is hard to come close to being objective and seeing yourself as others do, but because it is faulty premise to assume that even a good leader accomplishes a good result by his/her single effort( or in a vacuum). So, with those justifications, let me tell you my answer to this question of my leadership.
A couple of years ago at a social gathering of the officers, one of the officers said, “Where did you get your exceptional leadership skills?” I answered simply – “I had good mentors.” Throughout my professional career and appointments, I was lucky enough to work with people that were good leaders – they listened, followed through, were resourceful and sought “good” ideas to solutions for problems and for growth, followed the rules (parliamentary or otherwise), and at the same time were flexible, played “fair”, respected each person’s contributions, made the tough decisions based on program needs rather than personal preference or criticism, liked working with people in problem solving, and so on and so on. We’ve all read leadership skill articles and “how to’s”. Somehow my personal and professional skills, were “honed” through years of being exercised, and converged in the development of ALI which resulted in this program, in Chelsea, with this group of people. Simply said – it was also fun and I enjoyed it — or as another officer said, especially when the going got tough, — “Well, I enjoyed it most of the time!”
ALI’s growth was not without problems, obstacles, and in fact some “dark days” wondering how we would in fact, continue. At each of these junctures, ALI board members discussed the situations and issues and came to a solution most believed was for the common good. Always there was a risk – life is not without risk. However, equally if not more important, what happened after each of these “dark days” confrontation – was that we found not only creative solutions, but were re-energized in either our old and new approaches, and we became stronger in our values and goals.
So we worked together and produced a beneficial program. One reviewer, familiar with this article and this program, provided a more objective analysis of the results of our leadership and hard work by noting our accomplishments below:
- That the leader (s) effectively set the direction of the program. That is that they were knowledgeable about the basics of the program and the importance of sticking to the model that had enjoyed so much success.
- That they effectively aligned the program with resources in the community that they needed to carry out its mission. This not only includes the partner-organizations, but the “total community” involvement that was employed from the outset.
- That they got people excited and inspired about participating. Not only were they able to communicate the program and its benefits well to “the community” but they were also able to demonstrate the “fun” and importance of participating in this program. The U of M survey confirms the success of this latter point to some degree.
M. Scott Peck, M.D. notes in his book, Road Less Traveled and Beyond, that “part of (his) work is to teach organizations both large and small how to ‘operate in community’”. He goes on to say, “when operating in community, the group does not have a rigid authority structure; authority and leadership are shared as they must be to maximize communication.” This then becomes not only the magic of this lifelong learning institute model, but certainly the key to its success. We’d like to think we experienced Dr. Peck’s lesson.
So are we Unique? Simply said, by the numbers, – we are. But more importantly while we conclude that the Adult Learners Institute of Chelsea, Michigan has not only been highly successful, we, the biased “worker-bees”, believe it is also a very unique community-based lifelong learning program — not only by the “numbers” but because of our experience, we can hope that by sharing, — it will inspire others to try.