Elderhostel shows members a wide world

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 31, 2001

There’s a big, wide, wonderful world out there. Just ask an experienced Elderhosteler, who likely will describe low-cost trips to Greece, Alaska, the Grand Canyon, Jeckyll Island – and Natchez, for example. For 12 years, Natchez has offered an Elderhostel program, sponsored by Copiah-Lincoln Community College. Thousands have come to take advantage of the reasonably priced week-long visit to the city, where they attend classes on history and culture of the area, dine at local restaurants and visit historical sites.

Ronnie Nettles, dean of Co-Lin’s Natchez campus, said college administrators like being a part of Elderhostel for many reasons.

&uot;It’s meant a lot to us to develop the program and help to bring people to Natchez. It has had a positive influence on Natchez,&uot; Nettles said.

&uot;The Elderhostelers remember Natchez, and they remember Co-Lin once they have been to the program. That’s good for us and good for the town. I look forward to continuing the program and enlarging it.&uot;

What is Elderhostel?

Elderhostel began in 1975, when educators Marty Knowlton and David Bianco of the University of New Hampshire combined the concept of a European hostel with an educationally challenging program for older adults. The main office now is in Boston.

By 1980, the nonprofit program had grown to include all 50 states and had 20,000 participants.

In 2000, enrollment in the program was 250,000, with 39,000 of those attending one of the programs scattered across more than 90 countries outside the United States and Canada.

Most of the domestic programs are, like the Natchez program, one week long and cost between $400 and $500, not including transportation to the site. International programs are from one to four weeks, with prices higher because of location and length of stay.

Participants must be 55 or older or be accompanied by someone of that age group. As baby boomers begin to join the Elderhostel eligibles, programs are changing to suit their interests and tastes, said Carolyn Vance Smith, who helped to start the Natchez program and has continued to work with Elderhostel to create new programs.

&uot;They like to say in Boston that Mick Jagger is eligible for Elderhostel. The baby boomers have traveled and they know quality when they see it. Boston wants to address the need for new types of programs such as the River Barge Explorer we started in 1999.&uot;

That Mississippi River program, Smith said, is longer than the traditional Elderhostel by a few days and costs more. Nevertheless, it has been highly successful, with an emphasis on music. &uot;Still, education is the number one purpose of Elderhostel,&uot; she said.

The Natchez program

Co-Lin officials in 1989 asked Smith, head of the English department and director of public information for the college, to look into establishing an Elderhostel at Natchez. She solicited the help of the librarian, Willie Mae Dunn, and Pat Cater, secretary to the dean.

&uot;Together we worked out the arrangements and we advertised for the first time in the 1990 domestic catalog that went to a million people,&uot; Smith said. &uot;We sat back to see what would happen. We had chosen to try the program in October. The numbers came in so big that the state Elderhostel director asked us to put on a second program and then a third. So we had programs in October, November and December.&uot;

The same program initiated by Smith continues today as the most popular of the several offered by Co-Lin, &uot;Historic Natchez: Magic on the Mississippi.&uot;

Last week a group of 70 attended the program and left Friday in a flurry or raves about the town, the people and the rich history they learned while in Natchez.

&uot;So many Natchez people don’t know we exist,&uot; said Dee Ray, now the coordinator for the Co-Lin program.

&uot;The last two programs have had 70 people, and we have another large group coming Sunday.&uot;

The Natchez agenda

Staff members accompany Elderhostel groups for all their activities except for the hour or so of free time they frequently have at the end of the day.

Those staff members include Becky Neville, who also is site coordinator for the program; Melba Wisner; Donna Martello; Robert Martello; John Saleeby; Bee Byrnes; and Willie Mae Dunn, who retired as school librarian and has remained with the program.

Through the week, Natchez participants hear lectures, usually illustrated, about general history of the area, local architecture, the Mississippi River, the Civil War, historic preservation, historic Natchez photographs, history of the Natchez Indians and African-American history.

The group visits the Grand Village, takes a guided tour of the city, goes to the Natchez Visitor Reception Center for the film, &uot;The Natchez Story,&uot; has tours of four historic downtown churches, visits antebellum houses, takes a guided black history tour and takes part in several types of evening entertainment.

Information about Elderhostel is available at the program’s Web site, elderhostel.org; by writing to Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, Mass., 02111; or by calling Dee Ray at Co-Lin, 446-1210.