When Andrew Guilbert recruits students and facilitators for Lifetime Learners, which offers courses at Norwalk Community College to people at least 50 years old, he often says to them, "A brain is a terrible thing to waste."
"You've got to keep active -- physically, mentally and socially," he said. "The brain is the most important organ of the body. They're all important, but that's most important. As a retiree, you look for ways to keep busy. This has been a productive way."
Lifetime Learners is celebrating its 20th anniversary in October and is stronger than ever.
"With the last two to three years, we've been at a peak of almost 1,000 members," said Guilbert, a member of Lifetime Learners who volunteers on the group's recruitment and public relations committees. "When we started, there was a handful of seniors who came to the college."
Guilbert, 78, a Norwalk resident for 42 years, said Lifetime Learners' goal is to keep people over 50 mentally, physically and socially active.
Harriett Malbin, a Norwalk resident who joined the group about 12 years ago, said she's not only learned a lot from the courses, but credits Lifetime Learners with helping her cope with her husband's death.
"I lost my husband 7 1/2 years ago, and, if it wasn't for Lifetime Learners, I would probably be a basket case," Malbin said.
She said that courses offered by the nonprofit cover a wide variety of subjects and that she particularly enjoys "I Love to Read," a course she organizes that has members read a book and then discuss it with the help of a facilitator.
"We get to read all kinds of books; books I would never read (otherwise)," Malbin said.
But Malbin said she's also enjoyed courses on New Orleans' culture and magical moments in movies.
Kenneth Lyon, a Stamford resident, said he and his wife, Susan Hart, joined Lifetime Learners a year ago and have taken courses on drawing, genealogy, World War I, African safaris, the history of the Statue of Liberty, current events and science.
"We basically liked all of them," Lyon said, adding that he was recruited to teach a class this fall on forensic science, which he had taught at Greenwich High School before his retirement. "It feels good to get back into it again."
Hart, who also taught at Greenwich High School before retirement, wasn't aware she had talent for drawing until she took a Lifetime Learners course in that subject, Lyon said.
"We've been very pleased with not only the courses and caliber of the courses, but also how well it's run, and it's done almost entirely by volunteers," Lyon said.
Lifetime Learners offers at least 40 non-credit courses a semester, and this fall, it's offering 51 courses on subjects ranging from history and religion to social activities, music and sports.
"Out of 50 courses, there is something for everyone," Guilbert said.
Unlike traditional colleges, Lifetime Learners courses don't involve lectures and tests. Instead, the facilitators, which include professional instructors and hobbyists, initiate and sustain conversations about a subject, Guilbert said.
"We prefer discussions," he said. "We give classes without stress or tests, and we expect the students to participate in the class as much as the instructors. It's a two-way street.
"We learn a lot, not only from the facilitators, but the other members in their commentary. The involvement of the students is as important as the facilitators. That's what makes the course interesting."
Malbin agreed, saying members' input in courses she took gave her "a different perspective on so many things, listening to different people's ideas. It's a wonderful learning experience."
The most popular courses at Lifetime Learners are "Magical Moments at the Movies," which examines clips from movies and the actors and time period in which they were made, and "American Music Collaborators," which covers American popular music.
"We usually get more than 50 students for each of the classes," Guilbert said, adding that the number of students in a class is limited only by the size of the room and the number of courses is based on the number of facilitators.
Courses take place on both East and West campuses at NCC, wherever rooms are available. Each class meets once a week for two hours, with a 10- to 15-minute break, and cafeterias are available on both campuses, Guilbert said.
A social hour, called "Brown Bag Lunch and Learn," runs from noon to 1 p.m. on Fridays, with Lifetime Learners providing beverages and cake, and members bringing a brown bag lunch or buying lunch at the cafeteria. The social hour is followed by a guest presenter, who speaks on topics of general interest.
Malbin, who serves on the Brown Bag Lunch and Learn Committee, said upcoming topics include the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, electric autos, the Norwalk Symphony and bees.
Members of Lifetime Learners also have full access to the fitness center on NCC's West Campus, Guilbert said.
"That's a free bonus to our members and accomplishes the physically fit (objective) of the organization," he said.
The cost to be a member of Lifetime Learners is $40 a year, and each course, which lasts from four to eight weeks, costs an extra $25. Membership and course fees cover a $50 per class day honorarium for facilitators; scholarships for NCC students (Lifetime Learners provides three to four $1,300 scholarships); a financial donation to NCC; and administrative costs. Lifetime Learners has one paid administrator and the rest are volunteers, Guilbert said.
Lifetime Learners' leaders also do a lot of volunteer work at NCC in exchange for using the college's classrooms and fitness center, Guilbert said.
Lifetime Learners, which is overseen by a board of directors elected by members to two-year terms, is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Oct. 12 with a luncheon, entertainment and review of its history at Continental Manor in Norwalk. The cost to attend is $36.
The celebration, Guilbert said, is "open to members and guests -- anybody who wants to come."
To learn more and to see the fall 2012 catalog, visit www.lifetimelearners.org.