Seniors find new ways to learn at Shepherd’s Center

Whoever said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks hadn’t reckoned with the Shepherd’s Center of St. Andrews.

The Columbia-area all-volunteer, interfaith learning program for senior adults completely disproves that adage. When the Covid virus struck in the spring, most Midlands centers for senior continuing education went dark, but not the Shepherd’s Center of St. Andrews, headquartered at Columbia’s Ashland United Methodist Church and home to some 285 members.

In March, the Shepherd’s Center of St. Andrews distinguished itself as one of few affiliate centers in the country to tackle offering classes via Zoom. Shepherd’s Center president B.J. Bickers, executive director Amy S. Crook, and chair of the Adventures in Learning Committee Carol McGinnis Kay led the charge to transform the center into a Covid-resistent resource for 50+ year olds.

“When Covid began to close things down, the only choices were: suspend all activities until it was safe to meet again in-person or learn a new format of online learning. Since social interaction and human connection are so important, especially to seniors, many of whom live alone, the center immediately decided to learn how to work through Zoom. A core group of learned how to manage classes on Zoom and spent the summer offering sample one-time classes so teachers and members could learn and adapt.”

“We tried to leave no stone unturned,” said president of the Board B.J. Bickers. “We recruited ‘Zoom hosts’ for every class so that teachers wouldn’t have to concern themselves with technological issues. A group of willing members created an 8-page guide for teachers and hosts to help navigate the new format. We practiced all summer and offered Zoom tutorials. We even reached out to a sister Shepherd’s Center in Greensboro, NC, and have been able to begin sharing Zoom classes.”

But the transition wasn’t carefree. Could seniors learn how to manage Zoom effectively without a resident 12-year-old to help with the technology? Would Center members actually want to take classes online?

“We went into the Fall Session pretty petrified that this could be a big waste of our time and energy,” Kay said. “Instead we were bowled over by how grateful our members were for the classes.”

A full array of eleven classes was offered in the Fall Session—from gatherings for Trivial Pursuit, and creative outlets with the Creative Writing Group, to subject classes such as the Story of Native America and the Theology of Harry Potter.

Response to the Shepherd’s Center of St. Andrews Fall offerings was overwhelmingly positive. Teachers report scores of emails thanking them and the Center for continuing to offer classes. 95 percent of the respondents to a survey at the end of the session said the experience was excellent. Some even pointed advantages of Zoom classes, including the participant’s close-up, unobstructed view of PowerPoints offered. In the words of one member, Zoomers managed to keep “the identity, spirit (and even the flavor.) of the Center burning brightly. I never left a single class without hearing a steady stream of kudos.”

It’s comes as no surprise Zoom is here to stay. 

“While it will be lovely to see each other in person again and to have activity classes (line dancing, art, bells, chair yoga, quilting) again, we have been delighted to see new members who have transportation issues or live miles away, people who could not have joined us earlier,” Executive Director Amy S. Crook said. “We know that many folks living in retirement communities will enjoy taking classes online with us. We had been considering ways to offer classes online before Covid hit. We were simply forced to move faster than we’d planned. Now, we are delighted with where we are.”

The Fall participants are already asking when registration will be open for Winter Session, which will begin February 2. Winter will offer even more classes, including subject classes in History of Aviation, How Organized Religion Gets in the Way, The Secret Art of Listening, and President Lincoln’s Assassination and the Hunt for John Wilkes Booth. Classes will be offered Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday mornings. Call the Center office 803-731-9394 for a Winter brochure. And visit for additional details.

Anyone with a computer can learn how to use Zoom, plus there are folks at the Center who can help a new member get started. Registration for Winter will begin the last week in December. Registration by January 11 is recommended in order to sure there is space. As many classes as a member chooses may be taken for one registration fee of $35.