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A Brief History of Eldercollege

Early Beginnings

By Lynda Sieber

The VIU Program we know as ElderCollege began in the Spring of 1993 based on the belief in lifelong learning promoted by Bud and Ann Wilson.

Bud had retired following a career in education and administration in the public School System. Totally committed to the belief in the brain/body connection, he wanted to pursue a program of community based, volunteer driven, learning for life.

He and Ann met with Lynn Jest, Facilitator of Elder College at Capilano College, Vancouver, one of the first such colleges in Western Canada.  Lynn provided enthusiastic support and a commitment to come to the Island to assist in the formation of the program. Bud then requested a meeting with Bob Wood, Community Education Program Co-ordinator, Malaspina College, Parksville Campus.  Bob embraced the concept unreservedly and his involvement was to prove crucial to the success of the program.  On March 18th, fifty people attended a meeting to learn more about the program from Lynn Jest.  An interim steering committee was struck to further research the concept. The first meeting of the Advisory Board for the formation of an Elder College in District 69 was held March 31st, 1993, in Room 118, Malaspina College, Parksville  Campus.  Eight board members were in attendance.

The philosophy of Elder College:  no teachers:  no grades:  our leaders are facilitators or guest speakers:  all are volunteers.  Remember, brains are not bogged down by birthdays!!   The prime objective was to have members both plan and operate their own learning.

This steering committee planned a meeting for May 4, 1993 to be held at the Island Hall Hotel, Parksville.  Lynn Jest was again in attendance to facilitate the meeting and answer questions.

The agenda for the May 13th meeting indicates the formation of a Curriculum Committee, and Steering Committees for Finance and Promotion.

The first Elder College Open House was held September 15th, 1993. The first courses began in October, 1993 with eight courses offered and seventy-five participants. It is important to note that some courses were Sampler Series, having six presenters on a range of topics under a unifying theme.  Study groups from October 1993 could choose from environmental perspectives, introduction to Native culture and beliefs, genetics of human concern, BC history from before contact to 1990.

The rapid succession of meetings is intended to indicate the dedication and commitment of the two dozen volunteers to achieve the formation and structure of the program. By 1995 the only functioning committees were program and membership.  Several volunteers promoted the program tirelessly, speaking at Probus, Rotary and Seniors Clubs.  Pamphlets were distributed to libraries, store bulletin boards.

In 1997 the constitution was revised again.  Bob Wood died suddenly, and the three remaining program members took on the leadership role.  One of the program members visited each class to ask for volunteers to help in carrying on the program. Two volunteers joined the Program committee at this time.

After such enthusiastic beginnings, perhaps a natural waning of interest in “hands on” management of the program had set in.

The financial component of Elder College in these early years was a challenge. The original fee structure was $50.00 for two courses in consecutive semesters. It is crucial to know that when Bob Wood held the leadership role, the financial statements at the AGM always evened out income and expenses. Bob gave hours of his own time and never charged the program.  Because charges suddenly became higher than income, the annual fee became $60.00 for two courses, and it was possible to take only one course for $30.  In the 1999-2000 calendar years, a further fee increase was proposed and the decision was taken to introduce an annual $10 membership fee.  To limit program costs, the program committee undertook increasingly larger administrative duties. 

The staff of Malaspina College were Bob Wood, his assistant Mary Porter; following Bob’s sudden passing, Cyndy Shantz represented Malaspina College for a short time and was followed by Cheryl Dill, Manager, Learning Connections.  Through the Elder College years 1993 to 2013, Irene Kerry (1993-2013) and Eva Chestnut (1993-2009) were on the front desk, taking registrations and course fees and always offering a smile and extra assistance. In the early years all volunteers, facilitators and presenters were unpaid.  A token travel allowance was provided if a speaker came up from Victoria, or travelled from elsewhere on the Island to Parksville.

The April 1997 Newsletter states that after four years of operation, Elder College has offered 78 study groups and reached a total of one thousand registrations.  Elder College memberships increased to 162.

In the Fall of 1998 the course outline indicated a shift towards a more academically structured program.  Bud Wilson believed in keeping a more “hands on” balanced approach.  Support for this evolving approach predominated.

In 2002, the financial obligations of the program became insurmountable.  Until this time Elder College had been in partnership with Malaspina College, and at this time it became a Malaspina University-College program, subject to all fees and operating costs.  It is important to note that Malaspina College became Malaspina University College in 1998. Michael Chriss, a Board member and former academic, pursued a meeting with Mr. Rich Johnston, President of Malaspina University-College.  The now famous Milner Meeting ensued, with Mr. Johnston providing an Malaspina University-College facilitator and the venue of Milner Gardens.  The Board members in attendance outlined the challenges.

Mr. Johnston embraced the program: ElderCollege became a program of Malaspina University-College.

He provided specific assists to ensure the survival of the program and initiated recognition of ElderCollege volunteers of 10 years with lifetime membership certificates. And for the first time, Nanaimo became actively involved.

This limited accounting of ElderCollege is incomplete without giving recognition to the dozens of volunteers who have made dedicated contributions to this lifelong learning program.  The names of these volunteers are engraved on a plaque which sits on the wall outside the Parksville campus office.

It is important to mention that Sandra Walker has been the program’s longest serving facilitator, now on her thirtieth course.  We also carry in our hearts the memory of “Connie” who at age 94 came to some classes and always the AGM.

Many persons in our community have volunteered countless hours, promoting, facilitating, and publicizing the program.  It is on their behalf that I ask for a more fully developed history of ElderCollege for VIU Archives. A more inclusive and comprehensive overview would do justice to the creation and development of this remarkable Elder College Program. And if allowed, I would humbly ask that the contribution of Mr. Bob Wood be permanently attached to the ElderCollege Program development.