Group for over-50 set cuts several programs

Pittsburgh OASIS 'victim of economic downturn'

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Pittsburgh OASIS, an organization that offers classes, discussion groups and outings for adults over 50, announced Monday that it planned to stop much of its programming at the end of April, a cutback that saddened members across the region.

"It breaks my heart to know that it cannot go on at this point," said Joan Zekas, 75, of Shadyside.

"I've gotten a whole new way of life," said Shirley Brill, 92, of Oakmont, who travels to the Downtown center several days each week.

In an e-mail to supporters, the organization's executive director, Gail Weisberg, also announced that she planned to retire at the end of the month. Ms. Weisberg has led the 24-year-old organization, a branch of the national OASIS Institute, for 11 years.

"We're just really victims of this economic downturn," said Ms. Weisberg, explaining that the educational and cultural programming will stop because of a funding shortage. The organization will continue to facilitate volunteering for adults who tutor in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and the Woodland Hills School District.

Ms. Weisberg said she hopes it will also continue to offer computer classes.

About 24,500 adults are members of OASIS here, Ms. Weisberg said. Registration is free, and enables people to access a variety of enrichment activities and day trips for small fees, like $8 for a lecture about the "Plants and People of Tanzania," or $25 for a snowshoe lesson in Frick Park.

This OASIS trimester, which runs through April, the organization offered 218 classes, including T'ai Chi and Italian heritage lessons as well as one-time sessions about Amish history, elder law and buying items on eBay. More than 1,500 people have signed up for programming so far, Ms. Weisberg said.

"I hate to hear that it's not going to continue, because a lot of these folks love it," said John Canning, 71, of the Central North Side.

Mr. Canning, a retired Mt. Lebanon High School teacher, has led OASIS classes on various religions and taken classes about immigration. He said OASIS provides "terrific interaction with folks from all over the city."

"It impacted my life a great deal, because when I retired, I thought, what am I going to do?" said Laverne Gephart, of Whitehall, who described herself as "ageless."

"I recognize the fact that I'm an old lady, but I don't feel like one and I don't want to live like one," said Ms. Brill, who hosts an OASIS conversation group.

The local OASIS branch realized its financial problems were dire during the past seven or eight months. The organization's board of directors decided in November to slash activities, Ms. Weisberg said.

"We're just a small group here, and we tried to do a lot with a little," she said.

With a budget of about $350,000, Pittsburgh OASIS is mostly funded by public and private grants, both national and local, including money from the Macy's Foundation and the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging.

"We've had the misfortune of losing some national funding, and then it trickled down to some local funding as well," Ms. Weisberg said.

The national OASIS Institute, based in St. Louis, has also struggled financially. The organization received more than $6 million in contributions and grants in 2008, but less than $3 million in 2009, according to tax forms. The cuts came from sources across the board: corporate gifts, government grants, private contributions. While OASIS listed a $1.1 million loss on its 2009 tax forms, the actual net change in assets that year totaled a gain of about $1 million, the result of grants received in 2008 but distributed over multiple years.

OASIS offers services in 27 cities nationwide, but not all branches have complete programming, as Pittsburgh does.

"It's really unfortunate," said national spokeswoman Janice Branham, of the cuts. "But we just couldn't continue with the resources that we had available."

Ms. Branham said the Cleveland branch downsized similarly a couple of years ago.

"There may be other programs that we can offer in the future if we have funding to do so," she said.

Mildred M. Morrison, administrator of the Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging, said in an e-mail that the agency plans to work to minimize the loss, collaborating with OASIS to connect older adults to other resources.

OASIS devotees still hope their programming will return, though.

"If you know any very wealthy people who want to invest money in a very good organization, that's it," said Ms. Brill.

"I'm truly hoping that maybe we'll have a savior," Ms. Weisberg said.


Correction/Clarification: (Published January 28, 2011) An article Tuesday misrepresented the financial situation of the national OASIS Institute in St. Louis. While the organization, which runs programs for adults over 50, listed a $1.1 million loss on its 2009 tax forms, the actual net change in assets that year totaled a gain of about $1 million, the result of grants received in 2008 but distributed over multiple years.

Vivian Nereim: vnereim@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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