LLI Spotlight:  Vickie Heffner, Executive Director, PILLAR Institute for Lifelong Learning, Colorado Springs, CO 

By Peter Spiers

The PILLAR Institute for Lifelong Learning, founded in 1998 under the auspices of Pikes Peak Community College and spun off a year later as an independent 501(c)(3) organization, prides itself on being the only independent Llifelong Learning Organization in the Pikes Peak region.  Four hundred members pay an annual membership fee of $65, entitling them to a $10 discount from the standard carte course cost of $30.  (For the insatiable learner, there’s a fee category called UCC—“Unlimited Classes and Courses”—at a cost of $250 per trimester.)  Membership is a healthy mix of highly educated people who take classes on subjects they didn’t study in college, and others who never went to college and who are making up for it in retirement.  The curriculum is focused primarily on liberal arts and the sciences, and many courses are taught by retired or current faculty members from Colorado College, the United States Air Force Academy, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak Community College.  Colorado Technical University, with mostly evening classes for working people, provides classroom space for PILLAR during the day and classes are also taught in ten or twelve venues around Colorado Springs, including four retirement centers and three churches.  PILLAR produces over 300 classes and three catalogs each year.

Colorado Springs has become a magnet for retirees, especially those who love hiking, biking and the active lifestyle.  PILLAR’s primary mission is lifelong learning, but a secondary mission is to provide volunteer opportunities for retirees, and more than 200 volunteers and two college interns help make the program run smoothly.  Vickie Heffner and a part-time administrative assistant are the only paid staff.  Vickie joined PILLAR two years ago. 

What do you consider your top 3-5 responsibilities at PILLAR?

Basically, it’s running the whole organization.  It’s a people business and I spend a lot of time talking to our volunteers, many of whom are single seniors who find great value in the social engagement here.  Some of them just work in our office and never take classes!  I also spend a lot of time pursuing sponsorships from businesses and grants from foundations, which together account for about 25% of our revenue.  Humana, for example, sponsors our website, and an investment advisor in our community sponsors our finance courses.  The retirement centers we work with provide classroom space but also pay a partnership fee.

Though I spend a lot of time interacting with our volunteers, they don’t require a lot of hands-on supervision because they’re typically highly educated and independent.  Our all-volunteer curriculum department creates the theme for every trimester, finds instructors and writes course descriptions for our catalog, but I secure the classroom space and oversee the whole curriculum operation.

Finally, I work closely with our board of directors, a 12-person body that includes six sub-committees:  Strategic Impact, Governance, Finance, Outreach, Marketing and Executive.  We’re a very tight organization and we work well together.

What are some favorite courses you offer?

Islam is a very popular topic.  Everyone wants to understand it and we usually have a new course looking at Islam from a fresh perspective every trimester.  There’s also new interest in North Korea and, in general, history and current events are the most popular categories.  People are very curious about the past and about the world around them.

Anything to do with computers is also very popular, especially learning how to get the most out of an iPad or iPhone.  People want to learn how to get to the pictures of their grandchildren on Facebook, but they’re also very concerned about Internet safety.

We also do a couple of day trips and a few longer trips a year.  We do day trips within the state, overnight trips around the Southwest, and last year 22 of us went to Italy together.  

Is there another LLI you admire and have learned something from?

I spend a lot of time looking at other LLI websites and catalogs on the Iternet and have gotten a lot of great ideas that way.  There are other LLIs north of here in Denver and Boulder but we never seem to have the time to get together. 

What developments do you see in the future for PILLAR or the Lifelong Learning Movement more broadly?

We’re actively exploring expansion into southern Colorado.  There are no lifelong learning resources down there.  Beyond that I think managing growth will be a real challenge.  Colorado Springs just became an AARP Age-Friendly Community, and we expect retiring baby boomers to drive exponential growth here.  Other LLIs in Colorado have lotteries to get into classes, and we would like to avoid that.  

What did you do before you came to PILLAR? 

I’m a military wife, so I’ve moved quite a bit and done a lot of things, but almost all of my jobs have been with libraries, historical societies, museums or other non-profit learning organizations.  My undergraduate degree was in earth science and I have a master’s in library science.  I was raised in Colorado Springs and when I returned I was focused on home-schooling my daughters.  When they became more self-sufficient I worked part-time as director of education for my church, and then went back to school for a post-graduate certificate in post-graduate executive non-profit leadership.  When I started looking for a full-time job, PILLAR had the vacancy and I knew it would be perfect for me.   

Where would you most like to travel to that you haven’t visited already?

When my sister and I were younger, we vowed to visit Egypt together to see the pyramids when we retired, and I’m still determined to do it!  It’s a place that has always had a lot of mystique for me.  

Tell me something else about yourself that others might never guess?

I’m binge-watching the TV show “Bones!”  The forensic archeology is so fascinating.  I have volunteered on several archeological digs near Williamsburg, Va., and enjoyed the pursuit of the past.