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At 70, Barbara “Bee” Fitzgerald wasn’t ready to throw in the towel and sit at home inactive all day while the city buzzed around her.
Having been retired for almost four years, Bee was looking for ways to stay engaged in the community. It was while eating dinner with friends, Ian and Marilyn Saunders, in their Garden District neighborhood that Bee learned of a program benefitting individuals such as herself.
Ian was in the beginning stages of launching Learning Before Lunch, a continued learning opportunity for retirees where monthly talks were offered on a variety of different perspectives and disciplines. The Saunders participated in a similar program in Charlotte, NC, but when they moved to New Orleans in 2015, they could find nothing comparable.
Learning Before Lunch has been up and running now for a year and a half and is led entirely by volunteers with The University of New Orleans donating their monthly meeting space. Each session is held from 10 a.m. until 11 a.m. on the second Thursday of every month. Coffee is served at 9:30 a.m. for anyone wishing to socialize beforehand. “We tried to maintain the discipline of a one-hour lecture because good, bad or indifferent, you know it will be over in ‘x’ amount of minutes,” Ian says.
Another intention behind the program, Ian says, is having friends meet and then go to lunch together once the talk is finished. Bee always looks forward to these lectures, finding most subjects to be interesting and tries to attend each month. “It’s something that keeps my mind stimulated,” she says.
Past talks have included a synopsis on the future of healthcare, Ellis Marsalis speaking on his life as a musician, and most recently a representative from the FBI broached the subject of cybersecurity. “They learn something about a subject- sometimes they find it interesting and sometimes they realize why they never bothered thinking about it,” Ian says.
One of Bee’s favorite sessions so far has been one covering New Orleans’s cemeteries. The talk sparked a childhood memory of when she was 10. Her mother sent them on a city tour and as they passed Lafayette cemetery, the guide remarked how they bury people above ground. While the whole bus gasped in disbelief, Bee says that it was something that she had never given much thought to, having grown up in New Orleans.
Participation varies monthly from 40 to 80 people, and most of the attendees tend to be in the above 65 age bracket. Guests can also attend a single lecture with the suggestion of a $5 donation.
Of course, Ian is always looking for volunteers to help him maintain the program as well. “Nothing runs itself. There is a lot of work behind the scenes,” he says.
While some topics and dates are still being firmed up for 2019, Ian says that there is no shortage of ideas for upcoming lectures. The history of Bayou St. John, the new Nola airport and the WWII Museum are just a glimpse at the subjects that will be on the calendar.
Bee plans to continue to participate in the program in the new year. “One of the ways to stay young is to keep learning- once you stop learning and being curious, you start becoming old, and I don’t want to become old. I want to keep learning about new things,” she says.
Sarah Herndon is a local New Orleanian and freelance writer. She writes regularly for Nola Family Magazine.