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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Lifelong learning

4-H Road Scholar participants explore a variety of interests in a low-key, interactive setting

For many, when they hear the words “Smith Mountain Lake,” they think warm breezes and water sports. But for others, the words conjure up thoughts of cultural tours, history lessons, lectures from experts in a wide variety of fields and the opportunity to make new friends who share a zest for lifelong learning.

That’s because the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center in Wirtz is a host site for Road Scholar, a non-profit educational travel organization for adults. Since 1975, the organization (formerly known as Elderhostel) has offered 6,500 educational tours in all 50 states and 150 countries.

Participants come to the Skelton Center, a scenic, 120-acre lakeside facility, from all over the country to participate in multi-day programs on topics ranging from American presidents to the Civil War to antiquing. Dennis Crowley, the center’s adult education coordinator, said he utilizes experts from local colleges, including Hollins, Radford, Virginia and Virginia Tech, and works closely with local attractions such as the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford and the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy.

“I’ve been very lucky to find excellent academic experts locally,” Crowley said. “We are limited to the kinds of programs that are native to this area, so we tend to go to local colleges and tap into their speaker’s bureaus.”

Road Scholar programs used to be open only to those 55 or older, but that restriction has been removed, said Crowley.

“Still, the majority are at least 65 and older, and the average age is 72,” he said. “It’s a case of they’re now having time to tap into their interests, without worrying about tests and grades. We offer a ‘snapshot’ course where one would come in on a Monday and leave Thursday. Additionally, there is the traditional course where one comes in on Sunday and leaves Friday.”  

The program’s usual format includes a lecture in the morning and a group trip in the afternoon. For instance, if the subject matter is Thomas Jefferson, the trip may be to nearby Poplar Forest, the third president’s personal retreat in Bedford County. Or, if group members are studying the Appalachian Trail, an activity might include a walk around the trails at nearby Peaks of Otter. In the evening, there are more lectures, a movie or some other form of entertainment.

The conviviality is a big part of this program, said Crowley – “what you gain from others attending. For the most part, participants are well educated, want to learn and are curious, and this provides a setting of learning for learning’s sake.”

While the Road Scholar program is headquartered in Boston, it has more than 2,000 host sites around the world. For those who live at or near SML, the Skelton 4-H Center can also provide a learning opportunity for commuters, said Crowley. Because commuters usually don’t stay overnight, the course is also more affordable. For example, the upcoming program, “American Presidency: Success, Failure, Character and Leadership,” offered May 28-31, is $498 for a double-occupancy room, but only $228 for a commuter. For both options, the price includes nine meals (three breakfasts, lunches and dinners), seven expert-led lectures, three field trips and two performances.
 
The Skelton Center offers both hotel and dorm-style accommodations as well as a dining hall., which will be remodeled in the fall Other facilities include the lakeside James A. Meador Nature Center, which offers aquatics and forestry classrooms and an atrium with live animal exhibits. Additionally, there are miles of nature trails, fields, forests and shoreline to explore.
 
Crowley said Road Scholar participants come not just for the educational benefits, but also because they want to see another part of the country. There are usually about 40-50 students for one program, he said.

For more information, visit the Skelton Center’s website at skelton4hcenter.org or contact Crowley by phone at 540-721-2759, ext. 264.

UPCOMING PROGRAMS
Following is a list of Road Scholar programs scheduled at the W.E. Skelton 4-H Educational Conference Center in Wirtz. For more information or to sign up, visit skelton4hcenter.org or contact Dennis Crowley at 540-721-2759, ext. 264.

VIRGINIA SAMPLER: EXPLORING THE BLUE RIDGE MOUNTAIN HISTORICAL SITES AND STORIES
Expert lectures, colorful stories, a brief hike along the Appalachian Trail and a visit to the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford. | April 21-26, Aug. 25-30 and Oct. 6-11

HOW THE CIVIL WAR SHAPED JUBAL EARLY, BOOKER T. WASHINGTON … PLUS, A LITTLE MOONSHINE!
This course focuses on Franklin County, the home of both Early and Washington, and how the Civil War shaped their ties to American history. A boat excursion on SML is included. | May 6-9

AMERICAN PRESIDENCY:  SUCCESS, FAILURE, CHARACTER AND LEADERSHIP
This course takes a look at each president’s successes, failures and scandals. It is augmented by video clips and other media. | May 28-31

TEDDY ROOSEVELT:  A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
One of the most colorful figures in American history, Roosevelt is studied from his many sides in an attempt to capture the spirit of the era. A boat excursion on SML is included. | May 20-23

ANTIQUING IN THE BLUE RIDGE
A primer on how to recognize valuable antiques and properly restore and preserve them. Includes field trips to Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest and a local antique store as well as a boat excursion on SML. | Sept. 16-19
 
TEARS OF FREEDOM: THE FINAL WEEKS OF THE CIVIL WAR
A program focusing on the African-American perspective throughout the Civil War. Includes field trip to Booker T. Washington National Monument and Appomattox. | Oct. 21-24