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Ten years ago, Susan Stauffer saw an opportunity to provide lifelong learning and enrichment to people 55 and older.  She was developing and directing the Pathways Institute (PI) for Lifelong Learning at Messiah Village in Cumberland County, which launched in 2006, when she was approached about developing a similar program in Lancaster County.

“This group of individuals were community residents from Lancaster County, but they were interested in having such a program as PI in Lancaster County based at Landis Homes, which they believed would be a good organizational setting for a lifelong learning program for residents as well as other community residents like themselves,” she says.

The program began at Landis Homes in fall 2008, as a pilot program with five classes. “They were well received, and the pilot program gained significant interest from the start with topics including history, economics, geology, literature and culture,” Stauffer says. “PI grew steadily from that point forward.”

Enriching mind and spirit
The mission of the Pathways Institute for Lifelong Learning is “to foster with persons 55-plus a quest for lifelong learning that enriches the mind and spirit to pursue wisdom, service and understanding.” Offerings include classes with a liberal arts focus, cultural events, service learning and legacy sharing opportunities, as well as day trips to historical sites, natural settings and cultural centers. Most instructors for Pathways courses are also over age 55, Stauffer says, and have a wealth of knowledge and expertise to share on a wide variety of topics.

“Many are retired and come from diverse backgrounds, including college professors, secondary and primary school teachers, physicians, nurses, pastors, attorneys, architects and many other areas,” she says. “The common thread is that they are all passionate about their topics and enjoy sharing their interests with others.”
Over the years, course titles have included “Natural Wonders of Costa Rica,” “Vikings: Warriors and Kings,” “Fun Stories About the Presidents,” “The Economy Today — A Discussion of Key Questions and Issues,” “A Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “Earthquakes Near and Far,” “The Great American Films,” “The Bible in Western Literature,” “Retirement — A Spiritual Journey” and more.

The program is open to all adults age 55 and older residing in Lancaster County and surrounding areas, Stauffer says.
“The focus of PI is to encourage and empower older adults to continue learning and to continue sharing of their many unique talents and abilities,” Stauffer says.

Dedicated volunteers
About 50 percent of participants come from Lancaster County as well as neighboring counties, Stauffer says, in addition to Landis Homes residents. Pathways relies on volunteers who donate their time and talents to the program. Approximately 35 to 40 people volunteer each term, primarily to teach. An instructor or presenter usually offers one to three sessions, with some including a related field trip. “However, these special individuals spend hours of time preparing much earlier for their classes or presentations,” Stauffer says. “This often includes developing a PowerPoint presentation and handouts as additional learning tools.”

Additionally, Pathways Institute has an advisory board consisting of 12 members, most of whom are volunteers, Stauffer says. The board typically meets twice annually and assists with special events, while a smaller curriculum committee of six volunteers meets twice a year and provides ideas for topics and instructors.

Looking to the future
As Pathways celebrates its 10th anniversary, the program is more relevant than ever, Stauffer says. “The concept and importance of lifelong learning has become increasingly recognized and popular over the past decade or so throughout the United States and certainly in Pennsylvania,” she says. “It is clear that continued learning is a very important aspect of wellness, and it has become popular because it is also enjoyable, stimulating and a great way to connect with others who have such interests.” The program has grown steadily over the years, and she believes more programs will develop over the next decade as generations age.

“I also believe that other learning formats including online programming will become increasingly popular, as many people who are transitioning into the retirement phase of life will have perhaps more technological knowledge and skills than former generations,” she says. “The range of topics is likely to expand to include even more current, and perhaps more challenging issues as people are indicating a strong desire to understand, learn and discuss what is happening in our communities, our nation and the world today. Discussion groups are already beginning to develop within lifelong learning programs.”

She says much of the success of Pathways comes not just from a diverse offering of courses, but also from a well-rounded roster of instructors. “I also believe that older adults enjoy sharing their legacies. This is highly meaningful and an important part of the life process in our adult years.”

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