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OLLI starts small and grows organically

Exterior of a university building

As with a lot of things in Asheville, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) is growing organically. What started in 1988 as a small department of the University of North Carolina at Asheville has become its own entity. It’s now housed in the Reuter Center on campus, serves 2300 members and has room for more adults looking to “thrive in life’s second half.”

“There are up to 100 classes in any given term,” says Executive Director Catherine Frank, a former volunteer teacher at Duke University’s OLLI program. She helped make the program, once known as the North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement, into OLLI in Asheville in 2012.

Frank explains that 60% of OLLI members have moved to Asheville because of the program. They heard about it through The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, SmartMoney, Business Week, Kiplinger’s, and The Christian Science Monitor, TV's CBS Sunday Morning and websites such as, and many others. “We seem to be known on a more national basis than we are locally. But we’re working to change all of that.”

Our members are incredibly passionate about the subjects they take and teach. Teaching a hiking class involves more than just 'going on a hike.'

What this means is that there are a lot of things happening at OLLI. All you have to do is walk in the front door and see the daily schedule on the big screen monitor. It’s filled with “College for Seniors” classes from Mondays through Fridays 9 am-5pm, targeted at adults 55 and older. (Average age is 72.)

OLLI members are actively engaged in a curriculum promoting lifelong learning, leadership, community service and more. Members decide the courses and many volunteer to teach. Frank explains that it takes about 500 helpers to make any given term happen. “This program is about older adults telling us what they want to know. They also don’t have to worry about getting a good grade … It’s about people willing to test their ideas, try something new.” says Frank.

Topics include Tai Chi, poetry, drawing for fun, advanced French, Broadway songs, James Joyce, Faulkner and opera to name only a very few.

Hiking is a huge draw, according to Frank. She tells of a class that was open to 20 participants. One hundred signed up.

So Frank (who oversees a paid staff of six) and OLLI members were able to find enough volunteers to hold seven hiking classes. Those filled up immediately and there was still a waiting list.

“Our members are incredibly passionate about the subjects they take and teach.” Frank explains that teaching a hiking class involves more than just “going on a hike.” It means the leader will go check out the trail, make sure it’s not too hilly, is easy to walk and will be of interest to everyone.

There are workshops that deal with more sensitive issues of aging, the “Life Transitions” series that explores planning for end-of-life, helps with Medicare and Social Security enrollment and more.

Taking classes isn’t all that OLLI members do. You can find them actively involved around the community as well. They volunteer at such places as MANNA Food Bank, Asheville Community Theatre, in Asheville City Schools.

“There’s just about no event I attend, that I don’t see one of our members,” Frank explains. “Our program is designed to get active older Asheville residents involved. Really involved.”

Which is one reason OLLI is offering more free public programs that Frank hopes will capture the attention of more area residents. Those classes are held by local organizations and are as diverse as Asheville itself.

Asheville Lyric Opera held open auditions and received feedback from participants. NC Stage has taken some of its plays to OLLI and shown what it’s like to be behind the scenes during a theatre performance. Then there’s the Astronomy Club of Asheville, The Autumn Players Readers Theatre, Carolinas’ Nature Photography Association, Chamber Music Chats, Symphony Talks, Elisha Mitchell Audubon Society, to name a handful.

Non-members can also check out free weekly ‘Fab Friday’ offerings. Discussions may be about antiques, local volunteer opportunities, politics, folk art and health education.

Frank explains the essential essence of OLLI is one that is a group of learners who are offered a sense of belonging to a community of like-minded individuals right away. You can come into OLLI and learn about area volunteer opportunities, find students on campus who will teach you how to use the latest computer technologies. Or you can simply come into the building and make a friend, maybe sit down and play cards or talk about the most recent book you are reading. It’s all about the learning.

“When classes are taking place all around the building, there’s just buzz of excitement in the air,” Frank says. “OLLI members are intellectually curious people. None of them have to be here.”

**Annual membership in OLLI (this year’s ends July 31) costs $75. Classes are offered in 5-8 week terms in Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall and vary in cost from $75-$115. For more information, see OLLI’s website:

Tracy D. Hyorth has been writing about Asheville and Western North Carolina since the late ‘80s and can be reached at

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