Osher gift makes life-long learning a reality

Bernard Osher and Barbro Sachs Osher

Howard Taylor and his wife, Madeline, both retired around the same time and were looking for ways to keep physically fit and mentally sharp. That’s when they discovered the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at the University of North Florida. 


In the two years the Jacksonville couple has been involved in the program, they have taken part in more than 20 separate classes and numerous organized activities ranging from a tour of the Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville to UNF jazz concerts. 


Taylor is one of about 1,200 members participating in the OLLI program at UNF. Thanks to a second $1 million gift recently announced by The Bernard Osher Foundation, the program is expected to grow substantially in coming years. 


Osher Institutes, dedicated to individuals 50 and older, are located at 117 colleges and universities across the country, with the UNF program being one of the fastest growing in the nation. 


That growth — from 12 classes five years ago to 80 classes this fall — was one factor in a decision by the Osher Foundation to make a second $1 million gift to the University as part of The Power of Transformation campaign. The gift has been instrumental in pushing the campaign past the $100 million level. The campaign hopes to reach its $110 million goal sometime late this year.  


The variety of programs was one factor in the Osher Foundation’s decision to extend funding. 


“The range and diversity of educational opportunities the program offers is impressive,” said Mary Bitterman, president of the Osher Foundation. “The exceptional growth of the Institute’s membership over the past several years is certainly a testament to the consistent strength and appeal of its engaging curriculum.” 


With $2 million provided by the Osher Foundation for the Institute’s UNF endowment, the outlook for the program is indeed bright, said Continuing Education Dean Robert Wood.  


“This extraordinary gift is an indication of the Osher Foundation’s confidence in UNF to offer the highest-quality enrichment program to the greatest numbers of learners in the metro area,” he said. 


Most, but not all, classes are offered at UNF’s University Center. A number of classes are offered at Jacksonville senior communities Fleet Landing, Glenmore, Vicar’s Landing and Westminster Woods. This is particularly helpful for seniors who are single but still interested in participating in community activities. 


Wood also attributed the success of the program to volunteers.


“Our growth would not have been possible without the passionate, committed volunteers who lead and the generous donors who support our OLLI organization,” he said.  


Volunteers are one of the program’s most distinguishable characteristics. The UNF program relies on more than 350 volunteers to staff committees and also to act as instructors. Four committees keep the program running, including a curriculum team, a membership team, a communications team and an activities team. Volunteers are involved in every aspect of the program — from writing and editing the newsletter to planning trips and socials. 


Since instructors are also volunteers, it has allowed the program to keep costs affordable, said Jeanette Toohey, director of the program. Member fees are $45 per person per year with courses priced according to their length, from $7 to $85, with most being between $20 and $40. 


“These affordable costs help broaden our participation, which in turn explains our growth and why we received the additional $1 million,” she said.