Marylen Mann used her background in curriculum development and teacher training to launch , a nonprofit educational and civic organization for senior Americans that today boasts 400,000 members across the U.S.
"I think that we need to get rid of the image of a grandma on the front porch in a rocking chair," said Mann, 75, who has lived in since 1968. She served for 13 years on the Clayton Board of Education.
Mann grew up surrounded by sick family members who had a limited ability to take advantage of opportunities to learn and stay active. As an adult, she spent time in senior centers. She generally found the environment there patronizing, built around a hot-lunch program instead of the adults who had raised their children and led productive lives.
In the 1970s, Mann realized there would soon be a "vast middle class" of senior Americans who needed access to stimulating educational opportunities despite having limited economic means.
"You have to discover who you are and what you want to do," Mann said. Those who don't can experience depression, which burdens individuals and their families.
So in 1978, Mann got an $8,000 grant from the Mid-East Area Agency on Aging to offer educational programming at 48 senior centers in a four-county area.
Later, she and her friend Margie May developed a committee and got permission from May's ex-husband—former May Company Stores President Buster May—to offer classes in rooms normally used for fashion shows at the department stores.
The first class there happened in 1982 in St. Louis. Over time, they brought in authors, historians, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra and staff with the Saint Louis Art Museum.
"People flocked to them," Mann said. They offered one class per month, then two. They noticed that the classes attracted a different group of people that than visiting senior centers.
It fit well with the support of public-private partnerships issued in 1980 by the administration of then-President Ronald Reagan. That's because the department-store model provided a safe, intergenerational learning environment for attendees. Parking was easy to find, and people found a stimulating intellectual environment.
Mann then obtained a two-year grant to offer classes five days each week. She petitioned Famous Barr for space to offer classes, and the company agreed to provide it. In the early days, OASIS offices were located in St. Louis city and later at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The organization found a permanent home in Clayton in the mid-1980s.
"It was an immediate success in St. Louis," said Mann. At that time, someone shopping at the department store might look through the racks of the lingerie department and see people doing tai chi or engaging in creative writing as part of an OASIS class.
Meanwhile, Mann had grown OASIS to include three other U.S. cities. She added more as time went on.
International events provided material for classes. When the Iron Curtain fell, OASIS offered discussions of reemerging Russia and China, and immigration. As computers became prolific, Mann obtained a U.S. Department of Commerce grant to teach older adults how to use them.
Then, more than 20 years ago, Mann developed an intergenerational program that pairs senior volunteers with students. They spend a minimum of one hour each week per student during the school year. She said the tutoring program includes every school system in St. Louis, and volunteers have worked with more than 500,000 children during the lifetime of the program so far.
Healthy living will remain a focus for OASIS in the future, Mann said. The recently launched Catch Healthy Habits, an after-school program, pairs older adults with young people at risk of obesity. They exercise together and learn about nutrition. The program has been successful and will grow, she said, in part because young people don't perceive older adults as judging them the way a parent might.
OASIS also has partnered with educational institutions such as Washington University in St. Louis to study how quality of life for seniors can be improved. While OASIS programming already is based on research, Mann said, there is more to learn.
And other changes continue to emerge. Much OASIS programming is translated into Spanish, for example, as Hispanic membership grows. Identifying new avenues for funding will also remain a focus. Currently, the organization relies on grants and contributions from individuals.
Mann said OASIS remains a lean organization: She began with a part-time secretary, and while the number of employees has risen, they are still able to accomplish a lot with very little. Volunteers are critical to that picture, as are leaders such as Board Chair Cindy Brinkley and executive director Marcia Kerz.
Clayton has proven to be a good fit for OASIS because of its central legal and business base, its mixed residential base and its forward-thinking nature, Mann said.
"It's a community that values education over everything," she said.
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