Just what would you do with an extra one or two hundred million or so dollars? Beyond the comprehension of most of us, Bernard Osher decided to promote learning. One of the world’s wealthiest men envisioned not another experimental program for schools or universities or scholarships for deserving students. He wanted to encourage seniors—most long past seeking formal education—to continue learning.

Having no heirs and imitating another mega-millionaire, Andrew Carnegie, Osher decided to expend his considerable fortune to worthy causes—especially education and the arts—during his lifetime. One massive charitable effort would target older adults to enrich their lives through lifelong learning and, importantly, be taught by their peers.

Founded in 1977, the Osher Foundation began granting funds to various institutions to provide eclectic programs for seniors. By the early 21st century, an Osher Lifelong Learners Institute (OLLI) under the auspices of Cal Poly began hosting presenters and participants to learn for the joy of learning—without examinations or grades. Seniors were now asked to share their interests and skills as well as developing a network of communications with the broader adult community. With yearly grants of $100,000 as seed money and eventually a final gift of a million dollars, the university was a logical agency to sponsor learning for any seasoned adult. There would be reasonable fees and minimal participant requirements except for the enjoyment of investigating a variety of topics.

Practically, however, the program was entrusted to volunteers who solicited and approved course proposals, sought rent-free venues and hosted each session. Cal Poly’s staff developed and maintained the computer-generated enrollments, any fees collected, and oversaw promotional materials and events. Soon, presentations became a year-round event.

As OLLI matured, complying with the Osher Foundation and Cal Poly requirements, it eventually reached a crossroads when the university decided the lack of resources was proving prohibitive to its continuing as the sponsoring agency. Attempts to increase participant costs resulted in fewer enrollees. Finally, the situation reached a difficult conclusion: discontinue OLLI.

It was then that a cadre of dedicated volunteers including Jeff Green,Gail Hill, Marianne Buresmeyer, Paul Greiling, Judy Yager, Ron Workman, Connie Thomas, John Frey and Karen (Leonard) Cake came together to develop a business plan for a substitute if not more effective program. Each were well-experienced with pioneering and implementing OLLI. Indeed, Cal Poly exemplified the new model … with the critical exception being funding. Thus, the intrepid organizers established two vital requirements for the new venture: minimal effort for its volunteers and the costs and prices were to be kept down.

The eventual answer: bury the bureaucracy!

What evolved is a blueprint for any organization wishing to serve a community with nominal requirements of time and income. After two years of preparing and filing legal documents as a non-profit and gathering a cadre of volunteers to assist with the various tasks, Lifelong Learners of the Central Coast (LLCC – pronounced ELSIE) was launched in mid-2012. Operating under the motto “Where Curious Minds Gather,” dozens of diverse offerings continue to attract participants. Billing itself as “a diverse community of independent thinkers,” to date, about 10,000 participants have joined the growing ranks of enthusiasts.

There is no rent for offices or salaries or benefits for anyone. Duties are defined and coordinated for all volunteers. With overhead expenses primarily for insurance and computer services, annual dues of $25 have resulted in a stable 400-500 membership base. This sustains the program costs along with participant fees. Members pay $5 per session and non-members contribute $10.

Even the semi-annual lunch programs depend on the venue providing the meeting rooms and charging only for food and service. Of course, any presentation is donated for the event.

Jeff Green serves as president of a working executive board of directors who meet monthly to coordinate the programs billed as opportunities “to update your knowledge, improve your natural abilities (and) increase your horizons…” Course proposals present the major challenge. Once submitted, a bi-monthly curriculum committee concentrates on proposed course content and assisting the presenter in establishing a date, venue and other program needs. Ever mindful of expenses while helping, the group enjoys rotating meetings between member homes who also voluntarily prepare the midday meal!

LLCC has few requirements for any programs which encompass interests and expertise from the arts, gardening, robotics, history, geography to whatever the talents and enthusiasm of presenters wish to share. October’s schedule includes California in World War I, the historic Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, coming to grips with your home computer and a more ethereal experience of spiritual intelligence.

Long-time member Judy Yager commented on LLCC: “We hope it will stimulate people to keep learning. We have a saying: ‘Curiosity never retires.’”

Interested folks will find the LLCC webpage features a listing of upcoming classes and how to propose a course. When asked what the most critical need for LLCC is today, Jeff is quick to answer: “volunteers” and encourages the community to participate in the unique program that celebrates the joy of life and learning at any age.

Joe Carotenuti

Contact: jacarotenuti@gmail.com.