Furman University’s Senior Leaders Greenville is designed for people who aren’t ready to retire from life and who want to learn more about the issues and challenges facing their age group.
The program “helps them to be a voice for their peers,” said Nancy Kennedy, director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Furman. Program participants hope that their combined wisdom and experience will generate a powerful voice of advocacy for seniors, resulting in better choices for aging well.
“It’s definitely worth your time if you’re willing to put the time in,” said Susan Peck, a Greenville resident for 35 years who was in the first Senior Leaders Greenville class. “I think it’s unique” with nothing else in the area that gives a person such broad knowledge of the issues facing senior citizens.
The program, designed and facilitated by OLLI, focuses on topics including healthcare, transportation, housing, government, technology, government, education, and leadership. Community partners supporting Senior Leadership Greenville are St. Francis Lifewise and Senior Action of Greenville.
Participants meet community leaders, activists, government leaders, and experts to dive deeply into these interests as well as learn about Greenville’s history and people.
The inaugural class last year had 29 participants with 27 graduating from the program. Six of the graduates were elected to the current Silver Haired Legislature, which meets and develops legislature that is presented to the General Assembly, she said.
Dan Garvin, one of the first-year participants and a delegate to the Silver Haired Legislature, said he saw an announcement about Senior Leaders Greenville in the newspaper and “it looked like a way to know what was going on.”
The group provided him with more information on senior issues, associations and events as well as helping him meet new people.
Peck, an OLLI member whose daughter has been involved in Leadership Greenville and the Liberty Fellowship, sai “This idea was not foreign to me,” she said.
“It was an incredible year,” Peck said. “Some subjects were of more interest to me than others. It made me think more clearly.”
She said she sees “the biggest issue facing seniors as loneliness and being alone and coping with everyday life. That is worse because of lack of access to grocery stores and transportation. Access to transportation in Greenville is horrendous.”
Garvin, who is originally from New York, also sees the major issue facing senior citizens in the state to be transportation. “The biggest problem is there is not any in the rural areas.”
This could be an issue discussed in the Silver Haired Legislature because “most folks don’t know what is needed.” Getting seniors from all across the state together – either in Columbia or online or on the telephone is important so they will learn about issues facing all parts of the state.
“People in the Low Country have different problems than those in the Upstate, Garvin said.
Applications to attend Senior Leaders Greenville are currently being accepted, with a deadline of July 1.
Members meet monthly on Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Furman or other locations around the county, focusing on a specific topic each month, Kennedy said.
The program, which began after research into similar programs, is based on the Leadership Greenville program at the Greenville Chamber, she said. After seeing and hearing the results of Leadership Greenville, “we thought why seniors couldn’t do something like this,” she said.
“We’re looking at it with a senior slant,” she said. For example, if education is a topic, Greenville Leadership would look at K-12 and higher education while Senior Leaders Greenville would study re-education for adults.
The program begins with an orientation in August and concludes with a graduation luncheon in May. The goals of the program are diverse, Kennedy said. Some participants may become more involved in volunteerism while others may become active in civic organizations.
Some “may just become better informed,” allowing them to become better citizens, she said.
Kennedy said the organizers were pleased with the initial year. “It’s so rewarding to plan something and see it happen the way it was supposed to,” she said. Graduates are helping plan the second year of Senior Leadership Greenville and are creating an SLG Alumni organization.
“We’ve seen the participants get more involved in things,” she said. Even at the orientation meeting, “they immediately started networking with each other.”
To qualify, a participant must be at least 55 years old and be interested in learning about issues affecting senior citizens and how to create changes surrounding those issues, she said. The cost is $350 and scholarships are available. Applications can be made online at www.furman.edu/olli or by calling 864-294-2998 and up to 40 participants will be selected.
Although facilitated by OLLI, participants are not required to be OLLI members. Themajority of the first year participants were not OLLI members when they joined, but Kennedy hopes many will become involved in the lifelong learning organization.
Senior Leaders Greenville is a result of OLLI’s goal of “looking at ways to enhance our program,” she said.
This year’s OLLI program offers 100 classes “from Latin to genetic to hiking to history” for retired people around the Upstate, she said. Membership in the lifelong learning program is $50 annually and classes taught by volunteers are $50 each. Packages of classes are available at a reduced price. Last year the organization, which began in 1993 as Furman University Learning in Retirement and transitioned to OLLI in 2008, had 1,770 members. OLLI also offers its members bonus activities throughout the year.
Garvin said that participants in Senior Leaders Greenville, including those who had lived in South Carolina for years, did not know anything about the Silver Haired Legislature until it was mentioned at one of the sessions.
“We just found out about it,” he said, and “we thought it would be interesting to find out what it does.”
Peck, who said she’s not particularly political, said that if the Senior Leaders Greenville participants who were elected to the Silver Haired Legislature have their way, “changes are coming.”
And that could be important. She said she doesn’t believe the General Assembly and other government officials think much about the needs of senior citizens.
“It’s not one of the fuzzy subjects,” she said. “That the children.”
The S.C. Silver Haired Legislature was created in 1999 by the General Assembly and held its first organization session that year. The body has 152 Representatives, all of whom are registered voters over the age of 60. Representatives are elected by counties on a ratio of one each per 5,000 South Carolinians over age 60. The group meets every September in legislative session to formulate resolutions to present to the General Assembly the following January.