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Lifelong learning institute finds its family a home at Colorado Springs mall

By: Tony Peck
February 4, 2018 Updated: February 5, 2018 at 12:47 am
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The PILLAR Institute, founded in 1998, runs classes "by and for adults in the Pikes Peak region," according to their hefty class catalog. (Facebook)

A Colorado Springs nonprofit focused on lifelong learning has plans to move into their own classrooms at the Chapel Hills Mall.

The PILLAR Institute, founded in 1998, runs classes "by and for adults in the Pikes Peak region," according to their hefty class catalog.

The students are made up of retirees and seniors who thrive on learning.

"Our people love to ask questions," explained Executive Director Vickie Heffner. "They love to learn."

And there is no shortage of learning. The nonprofit started with 12 classes almost 20 years ago. This past year, they taught over 100 courses on everything from World War II history to Celtic spirituality.

Over 200 volunteers, 80 of whom are instructors, are needed to teach and organize so many classes.

Due to PILLAR's growth they have been forced to find classrooms across the Colorado Springs area. Recently, Colorado Technical University has provided a space for free.

"This is a perfect place to ensure your mind does not go stale," said member Pat Dashosh. "You continue to think and grow and learn."

Continuing to stay mentally engaged is crucial to keeping the mind healthy explained Heffner. "Studies show learning something new and being social helps to prevent early onset dementia," she said.

While PILLAR has been firing on all cylinders academically, its ability to help the social lives of its members has fallen short of Heffner's vision. Borrowing classrooms across the city doesn't provide a central location for PILLAR members.

"They don't feel comfortable just hanging out," explained Heffner. "They can't stop by and grab a cub of coffee," she said.

A central social hub is essential, Heffner said, because members often rely so much on each other.

"Sometimes they might not have family here," Heffner said of her members. "PILLAR becomes their family."

And every family needs a family room.

That is where Chapel Hills Mall enters the picture. Heffner began discussing the idea of moving PILLAR into the mall with its leadership last November.

They immediately jumped on the idea. "They are really accommodating," Heffner said. "They want it to be a long-term partnership."

The partnership will allow PILLAR to renovate an old dentist office into a couple of classrooms and an office space, totaling about 3,500 square feet.

The mall location is more than a central hub for PILLAR. "It provides a lot of things we have been looking for," said Heffner. It provides abundant parking, access to the metro bus route, coffee, and even security.

"If the weather is bad, security will walk you to the car," explained Heffner.

PILLAR members have even started a mall walking group. "We have our little red vests with our logos on them," said Heffner.

Heffner is excited about the opportunity that the partnership provides. "Having our home base at the mall will really help us grow," she said.

To Heffner, growing PILLAR is the same as growing her family.

"I love my people," she beamed. "I have never been in an organization where everyone is so happy and energized."

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