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What's OLLI? Members are thrilled to tell

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute has discovered that sometimes success can breed challenges.

Take OLLI's Community Relations Committee, for example.

The committee, assigned the task of increasing the membership of OLLI, did a great job of marketing and surpassed its goal of 1,000 members to qualify OLLI for an Osher grant of $1 million.

Now with nearly 1,400 members, OLLI finds itself inexplicably having a more difficult time finding volunteers to build on the goodwill it has generated.

It's typical of small versus big organizations, said Anne Bellegia, acting committee chairwoman. "The volunteer spirit is there," Bellegia said. "But we were seeing some erosion."

If you're wondering what exactly OLLI is, you're not alone. A market survey by OLLI revealed that many people in the Rogue Valley have never heard of it. "That's what's pushing us," said Sally Klein, the paid coordinator of OLLI.

"That's when we knew we had to do something to increase public awareness."

OLLI at Southern Oregon University offers 85 to 100 courses each quarter, space permitting, for an annual membership fee of $100. Students, mostly older than 50, attend classes on the Ashland and Medford SOU campuses.

Volunteer instructors share their expertise and passions in courses spanning such diverse topics as art, finance, film, health, politics, theater, dance, travel, technology, writing and more. There are no tests, papers or grades. The classroom environment is casual and relaxed.

It's all part of a national network of more than 115 campus-based chapters.

To address the public awareness problem, OLLI has restructured its Community Relations Council and is forming the OLLI Ambassador Corps, Klein said.

"In the process, we not only want to increase public awareness, we want to be as good a community partner as we can be," she said.

Certainly OLLI wants to spread the word about its class offerings and public programs, but it's not just about membership, Klein said. It's also about forming productive relationships with other organizations.

The corps hopes to recruit as many as two dozen OLLI members, beginning with those who are already affiliated in some way with other community groups that share OLLI's mission of intellectual stimulation and social connection.

"We hope to appoint ambassadors to libraries, AAUW, League of Women Voters, Southern Oregon Historical Society, as well as chambers of commerce, senior centers, active retirement homes and more," Bellegia said.

All that community dialogue might help organizations avoid event scheduling conflicts, too, she added.

The Community Relations Committee is looking for ambassadors to speak to groups about OLLI. It also hopes to recruit people with marketing skills to help build public awareness.

Another goal is to develop more volunteers for OLLI committees. They range from curriculum, landscaping and audio-visual technology to special events, the OLLI newsletter and fund development, to name a few.

Carl Prufer has been named the volunteer manager of the Ambassador Corps. He will work with Bellegia, Klein and other committee members to launch the program.

If you are interested in either the Ambassador Corps or the Community Relations Committee, contact Bellegia at 541-944-7095 or email her at annebellegia@mac.com.

For more information about OLLI course offerings, go to www.sou.edu/olli/. The preliminary registration period for the fall 2012 quarter is Aug. 1-17.

Jim Flint is a former Washington state newspaper publisher and editor now living in Ashland. Reach him at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.