Old school? Not really. The Oasis Institute’s innovative program is closing the generation gap.

Old school? Not really. The Oasis Institute’s innovative program is closing the generation gap.

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The Oasis Institute is a national nonprofit organization that encourages a three-fold approach to healthy aging: lifelong learning, wellness programs and volunteer engagement. Founded and headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri in 1982, Oasis has a national membership of 360,000 adults and serves 52,000 people annually through partnerships in 40 cities. The vision of Oasis is to see that adults age 50 and older have opportunities to pursue vibrant, healthy, productive and meaningful lives.

The predicate for Oasis was actually evidence-based. The MacArthur Foundation study funded two researchers, Dr.’s John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn. They found that the key ingredients for a high quality of life are maintaining a low risk for disease, a high level of engagement with the community and high physical and cognitive function, and ‘it is the combination of all three that represents the concept of successful aging fully.’

“I’m excited to be a part of a national organization that’s impacting lives all over the country and also in my hometown,” said Paul Weiss, Ph.D., president of Oasis Institute. “The Oasis story conveys an inspiring message of successful aging.”

Tell us about your career path.

Coaching a local swim club in University City developed my interest in sports psychology research in graduate school. I left St. Louis to go to northern California and worked at Independence High School, one of the largest high schools in North America, as their swimming and water polo coach. I did that for nearly a decade and loved it.

I wanted to use my advanced degree a bit more and got lucky. I found a job at Asphalt Green, a sports and fitness-focused nonprofit organization in New York City. I started there shortly after the 9/11 attacks and worked as chief program officer during my 12-year tenure. A portion of my portfolio was developing an evidence-based senior fitness curriculum for the New York City Department of Aging.

After New York, I served as the senior athletic director at George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania. I worked there for three years until it became obvious that my aging parents’ lives would be enriched if I lived closer to them – so I moved back to St. Louis and that’s when I discovered Oasis.

How was Oasis founded?

Oasis Founder Marylen Mann saw what was happening at senior centers and she thought we could do much better. Marylen based Oasis on having three columns of programming: lifelong learning, wellness programs and volunteer engagement. Life-long learning with Oasis includes arts, humanities, language, music, science, politics, and developing new skills and abilities. For example, there are classes on learning how to use Facebook, an introduction to the internet and using an iPad.

Wellness programs naturally promote active lifestyles and build self-management skills. Oasis offers exercise programs, fall prevention classes, health and nutrition education, and guidance in managing chronic conditions. Oasis health programs are offered throughout the city and county, and we train older adult volunteers to provide peer instruction in many of our offered disciplines.

I think volunteer engagement gets me the most excited. Our intergenerational tutoring program has tremendous expandability and it’s an efficient way to deliver both a literacy solution for students and a creative experience for older adults.

Tell us more about intergenerational tutoring.

Our older adult volunteers go to a school and tutor one child during the school day. The commitment is 1/1/1. One child, one tutor, one school year. Obviously, we have many tutors that tutor more than one child. In St. Louis, we work in partnership with 23 school districts to pair one of our 2,200 volunteer tutors with children in grades K-3 who teachers feel would benefit from a caring, one-on-one mentoring relationship. We train tutors to engage kids around reading, writing, word identification, storytelling and becoming engaged with words in a way that helps move them.

How long does a tutor stay with Oasis?

The average tutor stays seven years, but we have multiple tutors at the 10- and 20-year benchmark, and we have a tutor getting close to 30 years with the program. If you consider the average age of our tutors is 67, that’s pretty amazing! Through regular surveys, some interesting qualitative information has emerged. Our tutors indicate their quality of life and how they take care of themselves has improved as a result of their involvement in tutoring.

What is your business model?

We have an interesting blend of earned revenue and relationships with foundations, corporate and individual donors. We are focused on growing our earned revenue and developing more relationships. Our strategy is to build sustainability through growth. As with most nonprofits, what we need more than anything else is support for operations; growing earned revenue is a way to do some of that work ourselves, and has the dual purpose of allowing us to reach more older adults across the entire metro area.

We also have two campaigns a year. These raise awareness and encourage support from our participants and friends who are most familiar with our work.

In terms of what our next steps are programmatically, we are investing more in becoming educators. What we do around getting older adults involved in learning through their post-retirement years is core to what we do. The unique Oasis blend of encouraging older adults to be life-long learners across a broad range of topics, engaging them in healthy habits and movement and empowering them to volunteer and be mentor-educators for youth is a really powerful mix.

Now that you have returned from your ‘bicoastal walkabout’, has your perspective on St. Louis changed?

St. Louis is remarkably philanthropic and that is not well known. It’s a city that gives. However, there is still a geographical divide between the haves and have nots in St. Louis. It is geographic, racial and economic, and it’s something that concerned St. Louisans when I left town 25 years ago and is still a challenge today.

There are several organizations and serious philanthropists that are trying to solve these problems in St. Louis. Perhaps when I was younger I wasn’t aware of it as much, but I’m very impressed by it now. It’s a city focused on its problems, exploring solutions and creating change. There is a lot of good happening here, not just with Oasis — I see it all over the place. For example, Oasis partners with BJC Healthcare as part of their community outreach.

What do you love best about your job?

We make a difference in people’s lives. Many times we look at older adults as the end of life or as a decline, and we turn that around. As we launch our spring campaign, our theme is going to be that growing older can still be about growth. You can learn, become physically active, volunteer and expand the amount of time you give to the community. There is a perception around what aging really is, and I like that Oasis turns that on its head. Oasis participants are too busy living an engaged life to focus on getting older.

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