An intriguing concept appeared in the 1970s: Create group trips and activities for the older set like those that younger people enjoyed through international hostelling. In 1974, Elderhostel was founded by David Bianco to provide “intellectual stimulation, personal growth, fellowship, exploration, self-discovery, and a lot of fun.” Today, as the organization is poised to change its name (neither “elder” nor “hostel” convey its flavor), millions of people are taking part in Elderhostel adventures. Among them are Lifetime Learning Institutes, or LLIs, which are locally organized on campuses across the nation. In the Hudson Valley, LLIs can be found at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, Marist College in Poughkeepsie, Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, SUNY’s New Paltz campus, and Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. They are tremendously popular: Bard had to close to new members when its capacity maxed out at well over 200 people; SUNY New Paltz’s program had 175 people signed up at its opening.
But in Saugerties, where there is no college and no LLI, a new program is taking the lifetime learning model a step further. Lifespring: Saugerties Adult Learning Community aims to nourish intellect and curiosity while building a community-based social network. Lifespring is the cocreative effort of volunteers under the guiding vision of dynamic duo Susan Puretz and Arzi McKeown. Puretz is the program’s spearhead and president, McKeown its curriculum chair and consultant. The women met when Puretz asked McKeown to help out and bring her many years of experience at Bard’s LLI with her.
The women agree their collaboration has been magically synergistic, and for months they and a core group of dedicated volunteers worked on the program, which takes flight later this month as classes begin on September 22 at Saugerties United Methodist Church on Washington Avenue and Post Street, near the Saugerties library.
Hatching an Idea
The original inspiration for Lifespring arose as Puretz and her friend Barbara Kaisik were out walking, musing about Bard College’s popular learning program and wishing they could bring it “across the bridge” to Saugerties. But there was no college campus to host it. No matter: After putting their ideas together, they approached the town board with the concept of having it sponsored by the town. “They said they would love to!” Puretz recounts.
“Arzi and Susan have incredible energy,” says Saugerties board member LeeAnne Thornton, who is a teacher and acts as liaison between Lifespring and the town, sitting in on the meetings and helping with ideas. “They are very talented, organized, directed women, and with Barbara, they really took the ball with this and ran with it. There was a tremendous enthusiasm—about 25 people, with ideas flying. I’ve never seen a more diverse group of individuals, all wanting to do something to keep active. Local people have volunteered to get all this done.”
Winning town sponsorship meant tangible support that includes such things as a meeting room for planners, free webpage hosting and web design by the town’s webmaster, a cable access program where Arzi and Susan introduced the idea to the public, equipment loans for the classes, and about $500 start-up funds for copying and printing informational cards, brochures, and the like (for which community vendors have given discounted prices as well). “We have the same enthusiasm running programs for the kids,” says Thornton of Saugerties, “and we spend a lot of money in this community on what we think is important. Now we’re saying let’s do something for the adults of our community.”
Calling All Hungry Brains
Like the campus-based LLIs, Lifespring offers noncompetitive learning (no more exams!) on a diversity of topics worked out by the self-selected curriculum committee. McKeown has seen how hungry adults are to learn and grow. “Many people never had an opportunity to further their education for a variety of reasons—raising kids, their job, not having the finances,” she says. “Now they’re really desiring the knowledge and stimulation of learning, and they’ll have this opportunity at a very low cost.” Lifespring membership is $60 for any courses and social activities in a year (additional trips or events might have a small additional fee). Members can also take leadership positions by organizing or teaching courses, serving on committees, or organizing events.