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Offering retirees community educational experiences

Oct 25, 2023 11:17AM ● By Randee Brown

Since 1991, the Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning has offered a variety of classes and lectures for students ages 55 and older, according to Board of Directors President Mary Johnston. 

While Blue Ridge Community College offers a variety of continuing education courses like cake decorating, dancing, writing, languages, and flower arranging, the BRCLL offers a different type of programming. Office Program Specialist Gretchen Koehler said the Center consists of all lecture-based programming offered Monday through Thursday. While some are standalone classes, some courses consist of classes for two to three consecutive weeks.

“Many classes are focused on history,” Johnston said. “There are lots of interesting topics within that subject, like local and Appalachian history, what Western North Carolina is all about, and how we became who we are.”

Koehler said subjects also evolve from the instructors’ interests in particular areas. Topics have included the French Renaissance, renewable energy and storage, and the developing Ecusta Trail in Henderson County. Students will find a bit of politics and pop culture mixed in; art and nature programs are popular, as are classes that encourage outdoor activity. 

“The hidden gem of this program is the quality of speakers,” Koehler said. “Many have been ambassadors to other positions and live up to the quality of university standards. One of the regular history instructors dresses up for her presentations — she presented information on Caribbean history dressed up as a pirate.”

Attendance has varied within BRCLL’s programming since COVID, according to Koehler. Formerly under a membership model, there were 800 individual members before the pandemic. Now, those interested can sign up online with a single-price registration fee per class, and there are 450 active participants. With a newsletter program introduced August 1, the program sees new people signing up for classes every week.

Enrollment in most classes is between seven and 15 students, down from an average of about 25 per class. Occasionally a larger class, up to 50 people, will be drawn by a particular topic, but Koehler said many people feel differently about registering in advance than in years past.

“We are fighting a new normal where people are reluctant to register more than a couple weeks out,” Koehler said. “There are a lot more who drop in at the last minute.”

“Everyone’s routine has changed,” Johnston said. “We’ve determined that people just like flexibility more.”

Speakers often approach Johnston and Koehler regarding ideas for topics with a desire to teach a class. A program committee approves each topic, some of which are offered by Blue Ridge Community College professors who love to teach about the subjects they enjoy.

Adventure field trips used to be offered, but after a four-year hiatus, costs have inflated, making them cost-prohibitive, according to Koehler. Johnston said they have since tried to begin industry tours, which offer groups an opportunity to gather at a local business to get an insider look at different places around town.

“Prior to COVID, these tours would be packed and we would have had to turn people away,” Johnston said. “Now that demand feels deflated and people seem more reluctant, but we will try again and see what happens.”

BRCLL spreads the word about its offerings by participating in the Swing Into Spring - Explore Active Aging event at the Blue Ridge Mall. Team members also visit retirement communities to share information about the program, offer free programming through the library at BRCC, and add educational tidbits in their newsletter.

Johnston and Koehler said they understand the retirement community is continuing to grow, and they know they are offering a good product. Both hope they can continue to build the program to meet that community’s needs.

“Students become part of this program to be a part of the community,” Johnston said. “Retirees are able to make new friends and stay in touch while they learn about things outside of their own area of expertise. It brings joy to life to keep learning new things.”

Blue Ridge Center for Lifelong Learning is an organization within the Blue Ridge Community College that caters to the interests of older adults in the area of Henderson County, NC. Learn more at