By Jane Dowrick

This past summer I had the great pleasure of participating in a conference of lifelong learning institute staff and members from all over the South. We spent three days together sharing our best ideas and enjoying the energy that is always present when lifelong learners gather. Arriving at the conference site and pulling in to the University of Georgia Conference Center parking deck after 11 pm, I was immediately impressed. “This must be a huge place,” I thought, judging by the size of the deck. I found my way to the main entrance and was greeted with an energetic smile by Lenette B., a member of the UGA Osher Institute and my roommate for the conference. Lenette had insisted that she would wait up for me after my plane and car journey from Virginia. That might not seem so unusual unless you know that Lenette is 86 years old. A retired nurse and mother of four, Lenette is a very active member of her Osher Institute or OLLI, as many Osher folks refer to their Institute. After I checked in, Lenette and I made our way to our well-appointed room in the conference center. By now it was after midnight and we turned in for the night after a short conversation about which bed we preferred and what time we would be getting up. I mentioned that I usually walk in the morning.

After a good night’s sleep I went out in search of coffee and a walk. After a couple of hours of touring the UGA campus and downtown Athens on foot, my cell phone rang. It was Lenette, checking on me. “I’m a nurse, and you’ve been gone two hours, Jane—I just want to be sure you’re okay.” Lenette’s delightful combination of Southern hospitality and nurse’s concern were a balm to me. I made a note to let my husband know that someone was watching out for me in his absence.

When I returned from my walk, Lenette gave me a thorough orientation to the UGA OLLI, and shared with me the questionnaire that all of the UGA OLLI members attending the conference were expected to complete about their conference experience. I was impressed, to say the least, about how committed the UGA OLLI members are, not only about their participation in the conference, but in their efforts to plan the conference itself. All of the major planning activities were done by OLLI members, not staff. Granted, the UGA OLLI has been in operation for nearly 30 years, but still, I am always so inspired by what volunteers can do. Lenette and I set off to the opening session which got all of us revved up for a busy two and a half days of workshops and networking. Most of the workshops were led by OLLI and other lifelong learning institute members from UGA, Duke University and others—all eager to share their successful strategies for  a variety of member-driven initiatives related to program development, OLLI leader support and more.

In between the workshop sessions, there was time to network with other lifelong learning organizations. And the conference was not all work, with the UGA OLLI hosting an evening at the historic Georgia Theatre where we listened to several Athens music legends, followed by a dine around in our pick of the many outstanding Athens food venues.

Athough we stayed very busy at the conference, Lenette and I found time to get to know one another and she introduced me via a phone call to her daughter who is the same age as me. After the conference, I received a lovely card from Lenette and realized that I have a new friend for life who will continue to inspire me not only because of her age, but because of her love for learning, for doing new things and for meeting new people.