PEORIA Because Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is all about face-to-face interaction for people over 50, the COVID-19 quarantine initially caused a complete shutdown of classes, lectures and learning trips.


But even though social distancing has challenged organizers, they didn’t give up. They have figured out how to keep area senior citizens connected and learning through the online video conferencing tool Zoom.


"Even before we pulled the plug we were having discussions about what we can do," said John Amdall, president of OLLI and one of many volunteers who keep the program running.


Online video conferencing seemed like a great option, so they tried it out with a handful of study groups that had already launched before the quarantine.


"Almost immediately after that we had a committee meeting, and the feedback seemed to be that it was working. So then we said, 'OK what do we need to do?’" said Amdall. "We settled in on Zoom as the tool and we started offering free Zoom classes. We had like 15 classes last week and a dozen this week, and we’re probably at the point where we’ve gotten 150 to 200 people through an intro to Zoom. Then we had another group already comfortable with technology so now have a pool from 200 to 400 people that could do a Zoom kind of event. So we said, ‘OK, it’s time to launch.’"


Many of OLLI’s offerings are fairly easy to do on Zoom the free bi-weekly happy hours and coffee hours are easy to do. So are the lectures. But some offerings, like the learning tours, take a little more planning. Because OLLI is known for providing high-quality programming, it was important to get things right before attempting to do a tour, said Amdall.


"We decided we weren’t going to offer anything as paid programming until we were sure it’s going to be a successful offering," he said. "We did trial runs first."


Organizers decided the first tour would be of an area restaurant because they are very popular with participants, but they wanted to do a trial run first.


Janet Lange, OLLI’s former executive director, volunteered her kitchen for the test, said Michelle Riggio Rarick, associate director of continuing education for Bradley University.


"We asked her to do her famous scone recipe," said Rarick. "It was wonderful. Because it was a trial run it was a free offering and about 40 people signed it. It went really, really well."


This week OLLI hosted its first Zoom-based tour. Travis Mohlenbrink, the owner of Thyme Kitchen in the Peoria Warehouse District gave a tour of his kitchen and a cooking demonstration of his popular marsala stuffed chicken, a dish participants picked up curbside the evening before.


"The cost was $30 and they paid us online," said Rarick. "OLLI volunteers helped him with the curbside pickup on Wednesday, and then on Thursday he was live in his kitchen. One of our goals is to help those who had opened up their business to OLLI before COVID-19. And knowing how interested our members are in what goes on behind the scenes, we thought it would be an extremely popular program now."


After a thoughtful start, OLLI via Zoom is now up and running. Multiple lectures are scheduled, and they’ve already set a date for their next virtual restaurant tour, "Dinner at Alexander's Steakhouse and Behind-the-Scenes with Steve Shaw." Curbside dinner pickup will be May 6, and the live virtual tour will be May 7. To sign up visit https://bradley.eventsair.com/olli-spring-2020-virtual-olli/registration/Site/Register.


To learn more about OLLI, visit the organization’s Facebook page and sign up for its weekly newsletter.


Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.