OASIS fulfills founder’s goal: ‘We can do better for older adults’

Robert A. Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Thirty years ago this fall, Marylen Mann was given a guided tour of senior centers in St. Louis by Rev. Lucius Cervantes, S.J. who was then the St. Louis Commissioner of Aging (and the brother of the then St. Louis Mayor Alphonso J. Cervantes). To be sure, the centers were meeting some very basic needs, but Mann was concerned that there was a lack of intellectual stimulation for older persons in St. Louis. She turned to the late Father Cervantes and said, “We can do better for older adults.” 

So in 1982, Mann became the founder and first executive director of the Older Adult Service and Information System, or OASIS.

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Mann saw the need for high-level mental stimulation, health education and volunteer service and began to immediately meet those needs. She opened the first OASIS centers on Sept. 28, 1982, funded with a two-year $84,000 demonstration grant, which provided a paid director assisted by volunteers who were recruited to staff the centers and teach classes in various subject areas.

Mann, who continues to be an active volunteer and now serves OASIS as its director emeritus, told the Light, “OASIS was not an easy sell in the beginning. There was so much misunderstanding of older people and what we can do. Now there’s a much greater respect for what we have to offer, and so much more awareness that we can do anything. We’re as interesting and as talented as we always have been, and our experience helps us appreciate what’s important.”

Mann and Marcia Kerz, the current president of OASIS Institute, recently explained that were looking forward to celebrating the 30th anniversary of the organization, which grew from its modest beginnings to now having programs not only locally, but in other communities across the nation. 

Mann formed partnerships from the earliest days of OASIS. With the collaboration of Jerome Loeb, then chairman of the May Department Stores Foun-dation, Mann secured national sponsorship from the May Foundation, and opened OASIS centers in May stores across the country. In addition, Mann sought local partners. She found a major partner at the old Jewish Hospital (now Barnes-Jewish) and the Washington University School of Medicine. “We were thrilled when William Peck, M.D., the physician in chief and director of the hospital’s Program on Aging, asked us to join Jewish Hospital and agreed to provide lecturers for OASIS health education classes,” she said.

She continued to find other partners and experts in the field of aging who agreed to join her in changing how older adults are perceived by society. She also continued to seek grant money to expand the program, which had begun to gain national recognition. In 1995, OASIS was featured on the PBS series “Forever Young,” hosted by then-Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and in 1998, it was recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General’s Conference on Health Promotion and Aging.

According to Allison Woodworth, Education Program Manager for OASIS, while the scope of the classes and programs offered by OASIS has vastly expanded over the past three decades, “We have had a consistent focus on the three-fold approach of lifelong learning, community engagement and health since the beginning.” 

No question OASIS has grown dramatically since its founding in 1982. Woodworth notes, “In the early years, OASIS kept track of membership, which has grown from 4,000 in 1982 to 360,000 now. In the past 10 years, the number of participants each year has grown from approximately 35,000 to 56,000 nationally.”

While OASIS serves the entire St. Louis community, it has partnered with the Jewish Community Center, where this fall there will be courses on the arts and Kaballah, among several others. The Gladys and Henry Crown Center for Senior Living is also a new programming site for OASIS, which offers various musical and cultural programs on a wide variety of topics.

From its modest beginnings, OASIS is now a community-based non-profit organization supported by corporations, foundations, individuals and a broad range of community partners. Major funders include BJC Healthcare, WellPoint Foundation, Sam’s Club, AT&T and Emerson. 

OASIS is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a Founder’s Series, which started with an event hosted by the Gatesworth. At the event, Mann updated those in attendance on the fall classes as well as future events, and Gladys Barker and Lucy Lopata were introduced as Honorary Co-Chairs of the Founder’s Series celebration.